Why Prince Charles has to keep his views to himself | Alexander Chancellor

Prince Charles's wish to be a 'defender of nature' is admirable. But he must remember that being controversial isn't part of his job description

In an interview published today in Vanity Fair, the Prince of Wales makes crystal clear what his future priority is. "I am absolutely determined to be the defender of nature. Full stop," he says. "That's what the rest of my life is going to be concerned with." So now we know what the monarchy will be like under its next incumbent. It will be a campaigning organisation on behalf of the environment.

One cannot help admiring the prince's commitment to environmental causes, despite the criticism it attracts. And I believe him when he says that "it's no fun having your head shot off all the time". But he seems unable to understand why he gets attacked so much. It is not because his critics find his opinions unpalatable, but because they think he should not use his position as heir to the throne to impose them on others.

By writing to the prime minister of Qatar, the prince managed to stop a plan by Lord Rogers for the redevelopment of the former Chelsea Barracks in London. The architect called his intervention "unconstitutional", and even a judge in a related lawsuit called it "unexpected and unwelcome". But Prince Charles is still pleased with what he achieved and sees himself, not without justification, as a champion of the majority view among residents of the area.

The trouble is that the monarchy's role in the British constitution demands neutrality. This may be very boring for the monarch, but that's the way it is. In a forthcoming television special to accompany his new book Harmony, which urges a "revolution" in man's attitude to the natural environment, Prince Charles says: "That's what motivates me. I can only, somehow, imagine that I find myself being born into this position for a purpose."

This is the prince's tragedy. He was, indeed, born into his position for a purpose, but that purpose was to be a constitutional head of state with no known views on anything remotely controversial. The Queen has played this role perfectly for more than half a century. However hard he may find it, the prince should aspire to do the same.

Deathless ambition

Why should I find it unsettling that a 17-year-old wants to be an undertaker? George Simnett, who has set up shop as an undertaker in Leicestershire, says he has always wanted be one because, "I am a caring person and I like caring for families . . . We clean up and prepare the bodies. We wash them, dry them, put makeup on their faces, cap their eyes and sew their mouths up to make them look like they're asleep. They look like ghosts when they come in here, but there's a big difference before and after. And the families are so grateful."

Let us recognise that funerals are good business, for the supply of dead bodies remains steady even in a recession. Let us sympathise with young Simnett that he couldn't make a go of it as a sheep farmer. And let us acknowledge that undertakers perform an essential function in society. But to yearn to be one? That is another matter.

There are lots of unenviable jobs that people do out of family tradition, or a sense of duty, or a need to make money. But there is surely something a little unusual about longing, at the age of 17, to sew up the mouths of dead people. I hope no one does that to me when I die; and if anybody does, I hope it won't be an enthusiastic teenager.

Alms for Norman

Nothing illustrates better the misery of Norman Wisdom's childhood than the story I read in one of his obituaries that he tried to get himself struck by cyclists in the Bayswater Road after a woman cyclist, who had inadvertently run into him, gave him a sixpenny piece in compensation. It is a sure sign of desperate poverty when people, such as beggars in India, injure themselves in order to arouse the sympathy of potential alms-givers.

It reminds me of a story about my great-grandfather, Murray Finch Hatton, a Conservative MP for Lincolnshire in the 1880s, who once shot an African tracker in the leg while big-game shooting in Kenya. Mortified, he gave the tracker a golden guinea, only to be asked if he would be kind enough to shoot him again.

Wisdom later grew rich on his success as a comedian, and was knighted by the Queen, who was also a fan of his; but none of this stopped him being hailed in the communist countries of eastern Europe – especially in Stalinist Albania – as an exploited member of the working class struggling against the evils of capitalism.

Pour the other one

It is not merely harmless for a woman to have the odd alcoholic drink during pregnancy; it may well help her to have a healthier and happier child. This is the latest item in the litany of conflicting medical advice with which experts contrive to bewilder and demoralise us.

For some time now, the government has been clear that pregnant women shouldn't drink at all if they don't want to risk harming their children. And that recommendation still stands, despite the finding in this week's Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, which claims that mothers who have drunk one or two units of alcohol a week while pregnant may have better-behaved children than those who have drunk nothing at all. Apparently, while the children of moderate or heavy drinkers may suffer from behavioural problems, those whose mothers have drunk just a weeny bit during pregnancy are likely to be perfect.

It is, of course, far easier to abstain from alcohol completely than to drink only two units a week, so it would have been much kinder of these researchers to have kept their silly findings quiet.


Alexander Chancellor

The GuardianTramp

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