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Leaked Letters Offer Portrait of a Chatty Charles

September 28, 2002|PATT MORRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — So what is Britain to make of a letter-writing prince with a loose pen and some leaky pen pals?

Front-page news, column by column alongside Iraq, is the revelation here that Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, for years has been dashing off confidential letters to some minister or other in what is formally characterized as his mother the queen's government.

Were it not for the flourish of that single-name signature, and the royal return address, letters leaked this week to the media read a lot like something plucked from a mailbag of earnest and outraged missives to the editor, of the sort beginning "Sir" and ending "Yours faithfully."

The prince who frets about organic food and modern architecture puts pen to paper to get in his tuppence's worth about all manner of matters, from military training and human rights to the hygienic qualities of wooden vs. plastic cutting boards and the "depressing" case of some flourishing horse chestnut trees that were chopped down for fear that falling chestnuts would crack someone's noggin and occasion a lawsuit.

"I and countless others," wrote the prince, "dread the very real and growing prospect of an American-style personal injury 'culture' becoming evermore prevalent in this country."

In another letter, written in February to the lord chancellor, the prince wrings his hands over a law stopping volunteers from cooking meals in old people's homes unless the Good Samaritans have taken food hygiene courses.

"Yet many of these sorts of volunteers are middle-aged ladies who have cooked for their families for forty years without poisoning anyone. In order to protect the elderly from a tiny, but theoretical, risk a whole section of volunteers is in danger of being alienated."

Such a "proliferation of rules and rights ... stifles initiative," Charles argues. The letters, which reveal a writer one columnist called "an epistolary incontinent," are more impressive for language than for original thinking. And, in fact, much of the public may tend to agree with Charles on matters like hysterical litigiousness and an excess of political correctness.

His spokesmen declare that the prince is perfectly within his rights to speak his mind, as he has for years to officials from both the Labor and Conservative parties in letters that until now remained confidential. His publicly expressed attitudes have been widely quoted and occasionally savaged.

At worst, the letters read like nothing more than the musings of a well-educated, middle-aged man with a bit too much time on his hands. So what's the front-page fuss?

Apart from the fact that royals sell papers, the fuss is over whether the heir to the throne is making himself--via his unique shortcut to ministerial mailboxes--a royal lobbyist, overstepping an unwritten but understood constitutional line.

The Times of London reported that Queen Elizabeth II told Charles she is worried about just that. If her son outlives her, he'll be king of a constitutional monarchy, a man more politically manacled than any gabby cabby driving down Kensington High Street. (The Times editorialized that Charles is "in danger of becoming the cabdriver of caricature.")

King Edward VIII, before he abdicated in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, made some of his ministers uneasy when he simply said during a visit with desperately poor Welsh miners, "Something must be done." Even the passive voice was too politically active. In 1649, King Charles I had his head cut off for setting his will above Parliament's.

If Prince Charles wants to be king, groused one unnamed minister to the conservative Telegraph newspaper, "he's got to shut up."

Nonsense, says Dickie Arbiter, a lecturer and broadcaster who for years was Buckingham Palace's chief spokesman. For one thing, these matters are really social policy, not politics. And for another, "this doesn't have any constitutional implications. He's not head of state."

The prince's spokesmen have said speaking his mind comes with the royal job. "Part of his role," said one statement, "must be to highlight problems and represent views in danger of not being heard."

At least as compelling as the letters' contents is the question of who leaked them, and why. Almost no suspect has gone unnamed. Did some minister do it to embarrass Charles into stopping the volume of royal ruminations? Did 10 Downing St. do it for some advantage? Did Charles' own people do it, perhaps to show him as a concerned, down-among-the-people fellow? Naturally, fierce denials all round.

The timing of the leak seems deliberate: The first stories appeared Sunday, when about 400,000 protesters descended on London to rally in favor of fox hunting, farming and countryside concerns that they believe are under siege by government policies. Newspapers that day reported the vigorously voiced support of the prince, who is said to have joked that if fox hunting was banned, he'd just have to spend his time skiing abroad.

A message to Prime Minister Tony Blair that was leaked that same day, in which Charles agrees with a farmer who said that "if we, as a group, were black or gay, we would not be victimized or picked upon," now evidently turns out not to have been a letter at all but notes from a confidential meeting between the two in April.

Charles has been writing such letters for more than three decades, Arbiter said. "Why should he stop just because a few of the letters have been leaked? What he might do is think twice about what he puts in the letter and secondly who he writes to.

"Isn't it strange," he added sardonically, "that in those 30 years, only now are they being leaked?"

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