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A monstrous right royal carbuncle

Vernon Bogdanor would have us believe that the Prince of Wales’s “controversial” meddling in public policy is a good thing. But Prince Charles’s interventions and lobbying activities demean our democracy – and have deprived the public realm of great architecture.

Stuart Weir
12 September 2013
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The Welsh Assembly building, designed by Richard Rogers. Wikimedia.

Just happenstance. I read an article in the Guardian by the constitutional historian, Professor Vernon Bogdanor, arguing that the Prince of Wales is entitled to meddle in matters of public policy as practice for not meddling when he becomes king, just as I was on my way to view the Richard Rogers “Inside Out” exhibition at the Royal Academy (on until 13 October).

The symbolic contrast between the architect’s democratic ethic and belief in the public realm, so evident at the exhibition, and Charles’s aristocratic de haut en bas interventions in architectural and other politics struck me forcibly after reading Bogdanor. In probably his most infamous abuse of his constitutional position, the Prince of Wales’s arrogant opposition to Foster’s modest extension of the National Gallery deprived the public of the complementary pleasures of traditional and innovative elegance in design and an illuminating extension of public access to the experience of being in Trafalgar Square. A delicate tower, balancing Nelson’s column and the spire of St Martin-in-the-Fields, would have completed the architect’s vision with a cupola from which people could take in the whole panorama.

The Prince’s speech in May 1984, at the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, was boorish. He depicted the extension as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”, adding that it was like “a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren”. Such is the power of deference that the wretched fool wasn’t lynched on the spot.

Prince Charles has opened up an unwarranted extension of the royal prerogative; and as Foster has complained, he doesn’t enter into proper debate over this and other damaging interventions, such as his lobbying to stop Foster’s scheme for the Chelsea Barracks site. Now however it seems that the Prince’s public interventions and his private despatches to government ministers on public policy matters are constitutionally proper. Professor Bogdanor writes: “The basic principle is straightforward. The heir to the throne, unlike the Queen, is free to act or speak without seeking ministerial advice. But he must never embarrass the Queen. Therefore he must remain politically neutral. That, however, does not entail abstention from all public controversy” (Guardian, 5 September). So he can bang on about teaching in schools, modern architecture, GM crops, so long as these issues do not become “party political matters”.

What’s more he has the right, Bogdanor argues, even the duty, to “familiarise” himself with government by speaking out and lobbying ministers; by seeking to influence government and public policy, he avoids the mistakes made by previous heirs, Edward VII and Edward VIII, who lacked sufficient grasp of issues in Bogdanor’s view to make the dialogue with ministers effective. (Oddly, Bogdanor omits one previous heir, Elizabeth II, who doesn’t seem to have suffered from her lack of meddling.)

The constitution is in fact silent on the heir’s role. Bogdanor has chosen to fill the vacuum with his own interpretation which is at odds with the more common assumption, that the Guardian espouses, that Prince Charles ought to be constrained by the same convention of neutrality over matters of public policy that governs the monarch’s conduct. His reduction of “politics” to “party political matters” narrows the very concept of politics which springs originally from core principles of democracy, equality before the law, equal voting rights, an equal public realm, accountability and transparency.

The Prince of Wales behaves as though he is above all that. The political class even encourages him to do so, judges and ministers past and present, combining to deny publication of his private letters to ministers – the “black spider memos” in scratchy handwriting – about which ministers are clearly uncomfortable. These letters apparently contain Charles’ “most deeply held personal views and beliefs”; the government’s response reveals that ministers do not regard them as politically neutral. In July, the High Court ruled that the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, had acted properly when he blocked a FOI tribunal verdict that the letters should be published. The Court’s ruling came at the end of an eight-year battle by the Guardian for disclosure that would shed more light on the way the unelected heir to the throne seeks to influence government ministers.

Grieve argued that disclosure of the 27 “particularly frank” letters between the prince and ministers over a seven-month period would have seriously damaged his future role as king. “This risk will arise if, through these letters, the Prince of Wales was viewed by others as disagreeing with government policy. Any such perception would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne he cannot easily recover it when he is king.”

Architecture’s social role

The Rogers of the Pompidou Centre, the Lloyds Building, the Millennium Dome is a bold and spontaneous architect. He seeks to encapsulate public space in much, though not all of, his work, with for example the “inside out” designs, the piazza below the new Leadenhall Building, the layered National Assembly of Wales where, as he says, “the public realm flows through the building” and politicians meet and debate “in their rightful place, beneath the people.”

For him, architecture, like politics, should derive from democratic roots, embrace the public and fulfil a social role, bringing people, ideas and institutions together. He states that he is in the tradition of the Greek citizen’s oath – “I shall leave the city more beautiful than when I entered it.” But he is equally a singular heir to the demotic socialism and utopianism of the 1920s Bauhaus revolution, and of the likes of Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, refining and extending their public ethic while freeing himself from the architectural norms of early modernism.

His pluralistic vision of the city informed the work he did at the urban task force under John Prescott and as adviser to Ken Livingstone. He sees the city as a place for all, “young and old, poor and rich,” and says that “access to good public space should be a fundamental human right”. I especially liked his plan for “London as it could be” – with its pedestrian axis linking Leicester Square to Waterloo, Parliament to Blackfriars”. It was never going to happen – too “impractical”.

Impractical? There is the rub. Rogers works in an area of public life and private business where ancient forces of privilege, land ownership and corruption are given new vigour and legitimacy by the hegemonic force of market fundamentalism. Land deals, economic viability and porous planning controls dictate development in the capital and towns and local areas throughout the nation.

As Rogers says, making the public realm secondary to such forces is a “form of vandalism”.

Prince Charles and his allies flourish in their narrow concept of the public realm which is being consistently diminished under this government. There is no doubt that his crude insult to the National Gallery extension did have an effect with a public that never saw Foster’s design and is rightly sceptical about much modern architecture. Richard Rogers lays down a challenge to the left as well as the governing plutocracy. The left need to re-discover and promote a more generous concept of the public and political realm – and a striking example of how to begin is now on display at the Royal Academy.

Editors' note: unknown to the author, Richard Rogers has donated to openDemocracy. We mention this for the sake of transparency.

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