Until this week, until the world’s leaders saluted him at COP26, hardly a day would pass without the Prince of Wales being bullied. The heir apparent was brutally insulted and mockingly sketched. Or taunted about his ears. Or his most deeply held beliefs. Or the collapse of his first marriage.
Back then Diana — always channeling the popular mood — called him “the boy wonder”, “killer Wales”, and “the great white hope”. She laughed at his medals; she said he’d never succeed his mother. When he tried to pray before bedtime, she’d hit him on the head, and shriek. This was the man’s wife. Imagine what Kelvin Mackenzie’s Sun was saying about him.
Not just the Sun in the Eighties. In more recent times, Charles has been described as a prat, a terrible prat, a dangerous prat, ill-advised, idiotic, the “puppet of sinister gurus”, dismal, a “sower of division and contention”, and “way too grand” — and that’s one article in the Spectator.
Foreigners found this legal national blood sport irresistible too. They joined the hunt. Charles, chuckled a New York Times editorial in 1994, existed for the world’s “amusement”. Perhaps the blackest day for him that year was when the Italian press reduced all those titles to… “Il Tampaccino”. Being embarrassed for the primitivity of your sexploits by a nation that invented a sophisticated cinematic genre called ‘commedia sexy all’italiana’ would have pushed lesser Royalty over the edge. Not the heir apparent. Nor England. Letting the world ridicule our Prince was the one post-war export drive that actually seemed to work.
Other Royal Charlies had it better, didn’t they? A swift release from his troubles on the scaffold. A convenient hiding place in an oak tree. Ours has endured life as a dangling, slow-twirling, impossible to miss piñata. It would be human to feel sorry for him, if he didn’t feel so sorry for himself.
Even his mother baited him. “Charles is hopeless” was her crushing verdict. “Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed king,” Shakespeare makes Richard II claim. Well, with Charles, the rough sea tried. And tried.
Now that sea is washing out at long last. Finally, Charles is respected, admired, and — most shockingly of all — listened to. His balm is pristine again. It’s not the crown he possesses. Rather it’s an apparently merited authority, derived less from his birthright than from the time-weathered correctness of his views on composting.
This week, whether addressing the G20 in Rome, or handshaking dignitaries at COP26, the Prince has been accorded the kind of fulsome respect that he lavishes on the plants at Highgrove. A sedulous, loving attention. Why?
Since 1970 the Prince has issued warnings about climate change. Unlike his jet-age father, he had no faith in a technological future. He rhapsodised about bees and gazed into hedges. He wanted to protect the elephants and conserve the Botswana Bushmen, seeing them in approximately the same way. He experimented with vegetarian diets when the only other person in beef-dripping England to do so was Morrissey. “At the beginning everyone thought he was crackers… They wrote him off completely,” his biographer Penny Junor told the Washington Post. “He’s been saying these things for 50 years, but the world has caught up to Charles hasn’t it? He’s certainly not a crank.” Even Donald Trump admitted a few years ago that he “totally listened” to Prince Charles’s eco-views.
While he waited for his mother to abdicate, Charles yearned to do the right thing. He did this through thoughts, not actions. Winston Churchill told the Queen in a letter that Charles, at the age of two, was “young to think so much”. At a luncheon, Edwina Mountbatten told the eight-year-old Charles that he shouldn’t pluck the stalks out of strawberries. He should hoist the fruit up by the stems and roll them in sugar. Moments later his cousin Pamela Hicks observed that “the poor child was trying to put all the stems back on. That was so sad.” Charles’s entire outlook can be reduced to this desire to put stalks back on strawberries. “All I want to do,” he once dolefully told Jonathan Dimbleby, “is to help other people.”
He believed this desire to save and serve was sharpened on the grindstone of reality, rather than the unintended consequence of an artificial upbringing. “I have come to realise,” he wrote in 2002, “that my entire life has been so far motivated by a desire to heal — to heal the dismembered landscape and the poisoned soul; the cruelly shattered townscape, where harmony has been replaced by cacophony; to heal the divisions between intuitive and rational thought, between mind and body, and soul, so that the temple of our humanity can once again be lit by a sacred flame.” Modernity could be escaped and replaced with… him, in a temple, lighting a flame. More alluring, I suppose, than cutting the ribbon on yet another community centre.
On and on he went like this for decades. The self-image was radical: Red Shelley in an Anderson & Sheppard blazer. He referred to himself, his ex-private secretary Mark Bolland said, “as a ‘dissident’ working against the prevailing political consensus”. All that dissent was collected inside a two-volume, 1,012-page treasury of speeches and remarks, retailing for over £320, illustrated with his own watercolours, and bound in stiff bottle green buckram, published in 2015. These heavy volumes appear designed to trouble the shelves of libraries, not their readers. What they reveal, once multiple introductions, glosses, prefaces, preludials, throat-clearings, and fanfares have been macheted through, is a vehement man hostile to the world as it is.
Charles never changes. But the world always does. When he was born in 1948, wars and revolutions had levelled everything. There was a ‘Great Compression’; inequality was suppressed, by accident, bloodletting, and design. For 30 years there were high taxes, good novels, middle-class successes, and an operational meritocracy.
By the Nineties, Tory politicians in Britain could dream of a “classless” society. Charles was most-lambasted in this midlife period, not merely because of the “War of the Waleses”, but because this socially democratic mood made the monarchy itself look ridiculous. “Who knows what fate will produce?” Diana said, ominously, at the time.
Fate dispatched her, then produced a vastly more unequal world. Meritocracy calcified into an aristocracy. It treats national and international institutions as outdoor relief for its favoured families. After Iraq, the financial crisis, and 2016, this elite, viewed from below, began to look like an Ancien Régime. With their fabulous wealth, estates, yachts, villas, servants, and elaborate sex lives, this class resembles the Windsors, just with stronger chins.
Charles looks at ease with them all. Being admired by Jeff Bezos; being hailed by the Prime Minister as a “prophet without honour”. Hanging out with Leonardo DiCaprio. Drinking with Bill Gates, whose ratio of wealth to the average US citizen is roughly the same as the richest Roman aristocrats to the plebs in 400 AD. How right it looked. Those who have taken the glitziest prizes from industrial civilisation now, like Charles, believe it is sick.
So the dissident Prince is accepted at last. A fairytale to replace the old one, about the Princess dying in a tunnel. He believed he had waged a guerrilla war against scientific expertise all his life. Now it agrees with him about hedges and bees, so he gives it his blessing. Typically, his victory is Pyrrhic. All it has taken for Charles to be vindicated is the prospect of the near-term extinction of the human race.