Prince Charles’s letters reveal a man of many interests
Correspondence with ministers ranges from army shortages to fate of the albatross
A copy of one of the letters that the Prince of Wales wrote to the then prime minister Tony Blair, one of a series of his private letters to government ministers that was published following a ruling by the UK’s supreme court. Photograph: Philip Toscano/PA Wire
Prince Charles’s so-called “Black Spider” letters, released after a 10-year effort by the British government to prevent their publication, reveals a man interested in “the Patagonian toothfish”, “the poor old albatross” and badger culling in Co Donegal.
The 27 letters from Prince Charles to prime minister Tony Blair and his Labour ministers, dating between September 2004 and March 2005, had to be published after a supreme court ruling.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve had struggled to prevent publication of the letters, arguing that depriving the prince of the ability to communicate privately with ministers would interfere with “his preparations for kingship”.
Little, if anything, creates a serious problem for the prince, although a Channel 4 News reporter had his microphone grabbed by a Royal aide when he attempted to put a question to the prince.
In the correspondence published, Prince Charles expresses his opinion, in often lengthy letters, on subjects ranging from the plight facing British farmers coping with pressures from supermarkets to equipment shortages affecting soldiers in Iraq.
Equally, he expresses his long-standing belief in alternative medicine and his irritation with efforts by mainstream medicine to ridicule it, along with encouraging ministers to safeguard important buildings, including one in Northern Ireland.
Labour ministers of the time have long said that letters from Clarence House, often handwritten by the prince in his famous spidery script, were a frequent occurrence during the Blair years of government, but they denied that they dictated policy.
In most cases, the letters chime with his frequently iterated beliefs in organic farming, traditional building styles, nature conservation and other issues.
However, some of the letters were clearly more unwelcome than others.
Charles wrote in September 2004 on problems with surveillance equipment installed in the air force’s Lynx helicopters, and complained about shortages hitting the British army in Iraq – a sensitive issue for Blair’s government at the time.
“The procurement of a new aircraft to replace the Lynx is subject to further delays and uncertainty due to the significant pressure on the defence budget. I fear that this is just one more example of where our armed forces are being asked to do an extremely challenging job (particularly in Iraq) without the necessary resources,” the prince wrote.
In some cases, ministers appeared almost to humour the prince in their replies.
For his part, Tony Blair thanked the prince for sending on the names of “sensible and constructive” people in the herbal medicines, accepting that the implementation of the directive “as it is currently planned is crazy”.
“We can do quite a lot here,”Mr Blair said. The then-prime minister also suggested that the directive could be delayed while further negotiations took place in Brussels: “We simply cannot have burdensome regulation here.”
In the end, nothing changed.
Meanwhile, Fleet Street sketch-writers seized on a letter the prince wrote in October 2004 to Elliot Morley, who was then a minister of state in the department of environment, food and rural affairs.
“I particularly hope that the illegal fishing of the Patagonian Toothfish will be high on your list of priorities because until that trade is stopped, there is little hope for the poor old albatross,” wrote the prince.
In a statement, Clarence House said Prince Charles believes that he should have the right to correspond privately with ministers, saying that yesterday’s publication “can only inhibit his ability to express the concerns and suggestions which have been put to him”.
Legislation was passed in 2010 to ensure that communications from Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales to ministers should be exempt under the freedom of information act, to protect the “unique constitutional positions of the sovereign and the heir to the throne”.
These letters have emerged into the public arena because the supreme court ruled that the decision by the attorney general to issue a ministerial veto to prevent publication was unlawful.
Prime minister David Cameron, who was extremely annoyed by the court’s ruling, has made it clear that he will strengthen legislation to ensure that ministerial vetoes cannot be overridden in future, if necessary.