LONDON — Letters from Prince Charles to government ministers were finally published Wednesday after a 10-year legal battle to keep them from public view, opening debate on whether the prince overreached into political affairs.
Britain’s former attorney general had argued that the correspondence could be “seriously damaging” to Charles’s possible role as monarch if released.
But others insist that scrutiny of the letters is important to assess whether Charles — the heir to the throne — took liberties in crossing the traditional divide between the mostly ceremonial role of Britain’s royals and the world of political decisions and policymaking.
The British government fought vigorously to block public viewing of the “black spider” memos — so-called because of Charles’s scrawly handwriting style. But in March, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Guardian newspaper, which had pushed for their release.
The cache of 27 letters, written between September 2004 and March 2005, covered issues including badger culling, herbal medicine, problems in the dairy sector, and why saving the Patagonian toothfish should be a government priority. The release of the letters did not trigger the constitutional earthquake some had predicted, leading many to question why the government fought so hard and at such huge expense to keep them private.
“The publication of private letters can only inhibit his ability to express the concerns and suggestions which have been put to him in the course of his travels and meetings,” the prince’s office said.
But Charles and other members of the royal family are expected to remain detached from day-to-day political affairs. And the letters reveal the scale of the prince’s lobbying and will be pored over by the British media to see whether any of the prince’s missives influenced public policy.
In one letter in September 2004, Charles wrote to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair raising concerns about equipment provided for British soldiers in Iraq.
“Our armed forces are being asked to do an extremely challenging job (particularly in Iraq) without the necessary resources,” Charles wrote.
In a separate letter to Blair, he urged the prime minister to introduce a badger cull as a response to bovine tuberculosis, calling opponents to the cull “intellectually dishonest.”
In sharp contrast to Queen Elizabeth II — who seems to reign serenely above the fray and is known for her dignified silence — her eldest son has made his views known on topics including aesthetics and farming, and has been firing off missives to ministers for decades.
But until now — with the exception of a few leaked items — his letters to politicians have largely remained private.
Critics of the monarchy say that the letters could cast doubt on the suitability of Charles as the future monarch, with his political neutrality coming under scrutiny. His supporters say that he should be allowed to express his views in private correspondence and that his approach will change when he becomes king.
Britain is a constitutional monarchy with an unelected head of state who reigns but does not rule. Although Queen Elizabeth, 89, has weekly meetings with the prime minister, the monarch does not vote and “has to remain strictly neutral with respect to political matters,” according to the royal family’s Web site.
Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general who tried to block the publication of the letters, had argued that Charles’s “particularly frank” correspondence could be “seriously damaging” to his kingship if his political neutrality were called into question.
The legal battle began in 2005 when Guardian journalist Rob Evans filed a request to see the letters shortly after the Freedom of Information Act came into force.
It seems unlikely that a similar trove of letters will be made public anytime soon. The laws were tightened in 2010 to exempt communications from the queen, Prince Charles and Prince William, the second-in-line to the throne — for 20 years while the person is alive or five years after the individual’s death.