By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 23, 2006
LONDON, Feb. 22 -- Is Prince Charles sticking his nose too deeply into politics?
A former aide's confidential memo, made public Tuesday, has London's political world debating whether Charles has strayed too far from the monarchy's traditional neutrality in matters of governing.
Charles, heir to the British throne, regards himself as a "dissident working against the prevailing political consensus" and refused to attend a 1999 state banquet in London with Chinese President Jiang Zemin as a "deliberate snub" to a government he viewed as oppressive, according to the memo, written by Mark Bolland, the prince's former private secretary.
Charles regularly wrote letters to government ministers and politicians to press his views on issues including his "vigorous campaign" against genetically modified foods, according to Bolland's account. "He was never party political but to argue he was not political was difficult," Bolland wrote, also noting that political leaders privately complained about Charles's behavior.
"He would readily embrace the political aspects of any contentious issue he was interested in and this is an aspect of his role which the prince saw as particularly important," Bolland wrote in the memo, made public as part of a lawsuit filed by Charles against the Mail on Sunday newspaper.
Charles is suing the paper over its publication last November of excerpts from a private journal that describes his 1997 trip to Hong Kong to attend ceremonies marking the transfer of the British colony to Chinese control. He alleges the journal was improperly removed from his office by another former aide.
The lawsuit seeks to prevent further disclosures from his private papers. But on Wednesday the judge presiding over the case ordered the release of his 3,000-word journal, titled: "The Handover of Hong Kong or The Great Chinese Takeaway." His thoughts and those of his former aide have become top news in the country.
The prince is regarded as a visionary by his admirers for taking on such issues as global warming and genetically engineered food years before they were popular, but he is dismissed as a frivolous eccentric by critics who say his behavior is unbecoming of a king-in-waiting. Friends acknowledge he is in a tough position: If he remains silent, he is wasting his powerful bully pulpit; if he speaks out, he is meddling.
"Everything is politics -- the weather is politics, look at global warming," said William Shawcross, an author and biographer of Charles's grandmother, the late queen mother. "Do you want a muted prince who is silent on everything? I think not. It is difficult for him, but on the whole I think he has gotten it right. He has every right to speak privately to government ministers."
Paul Flynn, a Labor Party member of Parliament from Wales, said Charles was blurring constitutional lines. "He has to choose if he wants to be the head of state, and therefore above politics, or if he wants to be a politician," Flynn said. "And if he wants to be in politics, he must stand for election."
Flynn described Charles's views as "sometimes progressive, sometimes eccentric and sometimes totally barmy." He said that if Charles becomes king, he would have to "stay out of the political fray" as his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who turns 80 in April, has for decades.
According to Bolland's journal, Charles on many occasions wrote letters that "denounced the elected leaders of other countries in extreme terms." In Charles's journal, the prince referred to Chinese diplomats as "appalling old waxworks."
Describing the ceremony in Hong Kong, Charles wrote that the Chinese president "gave a kind of propaganda speech which was loudly cheered by the bussed-in party faithful at the suitable moment in the text. At the end of this awful Soviet-style display we had to watch the Chinese soldiers goose-step on to the stage and haul down the Union Jack and raise the ultimate flag."
Describing his surprise to discover that he had been seated in business class on the British Airways flight to Hong Kong, while other British government officials were in first class, Charles wrote: "Such is the end of Empire, I sighed to myself."
"I think the prince viewed the journals both as a historical record and as a bit of fun," Bolland wrote. Charles "would try to make them amusing" and circulate them to 50 to 75 politicians, journalists, actors and other friends, and once considered publishing his collected journals as a book, he wrote.
Boland added that in 1999, when Charles skipped the Chinese banquet, the prince instructed Boland to "draw the media's attention" to the snub and was "delighted at the coverage." Charles is a strong supporter of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
Special correspondent Alexandra Topping contributed to this report.