A constitutional monarch is purely ceremonial and plays no part in politics. But in the UK it isn’t quite as simple as that. The first problem is that we have no constitution.
Things haven’t changed much since the 19th century when Walter Bagehot, author of The English Constitution, wrote that “the sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy … three rights - the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.”
These are not inconsiderable powers in a country which is meant to be run by elected representatives. But nobody knows how these powers are used: almost all of it is done in secret.
Charles, Prince of Wales, is unusually public in expressing his views. But he also does so in private. He is currently the subject of an appeal to force the publication of letters written to government officials - the so-called “black spider memos”.
In 2010, he told a conference he was proud of being called “the enemy of the Enlightenment” - a remarkable point of view for someone who, as King, would become the patron of the Royal Society, that product of the age of enlightenment.
I’ve no doubt that Prince Charles means well. But his views on medicine date from a few centuries ago, and he has lost no opportunity to exploit his privileged position to proclaim them.
Euphemisms for quackery
The “integration” in the Foundation for Integrated Health (PFIH), which was set up to promote the prince’s views, is just the latest euphemism for “alternative” or “quack”. When the Foundation collapsed because of a financial scandal in 2010, it was replaced by the “College of Medicine”. The name changed, but not the people behind it.
Initially this phoenix was to be named the “College of Integrated Health”, but by this time the Prince’s views on medicine had become sufficiently discredited that the word “integrated” was quickly dropped. This might be thought less than frank, but it is just the classic bait and switch technique, beloved by used car salesmen.
The prince’s views were also well publicised in Complementary Healthcare: a Guide for Patients, which omitted or misrepresented the evidence about whether treatments worked or not. I wrote a more accurate version: the Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine.
A letter from the prince
This guide was arguably a danger to public health. When it was rightly criticised by Edzard Ernst, an academic expert in complementary medicine, a letter sent from an aide at Clarence House to Ernst’s vice-chancellor, Steve Smith, resulted in disciplinary proceedings against Ernst that lasted for a year, and ended with a pompous reprimand.
None of this criticism has dimmed the prince’s enthusiasm for barmy medical ideas.
In July, Minister of Health Jeremy Hunt visited the prince at Clarence House. The visit was reportedly to persuade the minister to defend homeopathy, though it was more likely to have been to press the case to confer a government stamp of approval on herbalists and traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners through statutory regulation.
Charles’s greatest ally, the Conservative MP David Tredinnick, who got into trouble for charging to expenses astrology software that purported to diagnose medical conditions, recently raised this again in parliament.
We might never know what was discussed in Hunt’s meeting. And the Attorney General has blocked the release of private letters sent to seven government departments as “disclosure of the correspondence could damage The Prince of Wales’ ability to perform his duties when he becomes King.” This is precisely why they should be made public.
The prince’s influence
The prince’s influence is big in the Department of Health (DH). He was given £37,000 of taxpayers’ money to produce his guide, and an astonishing £900,000 to prepare the ground for the hapless self regulator “Ofquack”, or the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council.
When NHS Choices (set up by the DH to assess evidence) was rewriting its web page about the most discredited of all forms of quackery, homeopathy, officials referred the new advice to Michael Dixon, the Prince’s Foundation medical director. Were it not for the Freedom of Information act, inaccurate information would have been included.
The Prince of Wales’ business, Duchy Originals, has been condemned by the Daily Mail, for selling unhealthy foods. And when it started selling quack “detox” and herbal nonsense he found himself censured by the medicines regulator, the MHRA and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for unjustifiable medical claims.
Ainsworth’s homeopathic pharmacy has two royal warrants, from both Prince Charles and the Queen. They sold “homeopathic vaccines” for meningitis, measles, rubella and whooping cough.
Ainsworth’s had already been censured by the ASA in 2011 for selling similar products. The MHRA failed to step in until Sam Smith, a young BBC reporter, made a programme about it. It still sells Polonium metal 30C and Swine Meningitis 36C, and a booklet recommending homeopathic “vaccination”. Ainsworth’s sales are no doubt helped by the royal warrants.
Runs in the family
Charles is not the only member of the royal family to be obsessed with bizarre forms of medicine.
The first homeopath to the British royal family, Frederick Quin, was a son of the Duchess of Devonshire (1765-1824). Queen Mary (1865-1953) headed the fundraising efforts to move and expand the London Homeopathic Hospital. King George VI was so enthusiastic that in 1948 he conferred the royal title on it.
The present Queen’s homeopathic physician is Peter Fisher, who is medical director of a hospital, now rebranded, as the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine (RLHIM).
The RLHIM is a great embarrassment to the otherwise excellent UCL Hospital Trust. It has been repeatedly condemned by the ASA and has been forced to withdraw all of its patient information. It’s hard to imagine that this anachronistic institution would still exist without the patronage of the Queen.
To justify the secrecy of Charles’s letter, the attorney general said:
It is a matter of the highest importance within our constitutional framework that the Monarch is a politically neutral figure.
Questions about health policy are undoubtedly political, and the highly partisan interventions of the prince in the political process make his behaviour unconstitutional. They endanger the monarchy itself. Whether that matters depends on how much you value tradition and how much you value the tourist business generated by the Gilbert & Sullivan flummery at which royals excel.
The least that one can ask of the royal family is that they should not endanger the health of the nation. If I wanted to know the winner of the 2.30 at Ascot, I’d ask a royal. For any question concerning science or medicine I’d ask someone with more education.