Among royal-watchers, the black spider memos – 27 letters written by Prince Charles to various government departments between late 2004 and early 2005 – have aroused the sorts of expectations usually only generated by a Star Wars sequel.
The Guardian’s legal battle to secure their release under freedom of information legislation has stretched over ten years, and each stage of this long process has prompted fresh speculation as to what they contain. So after all this wait, do we have the thrilling archival equivalent of The Empire Strikes Back, or a dreary disappointment like The Phantom Menace?
Maybe a bit of both. The range of subjects covered by the letters is remarkable: from the redevelopment of Cherry Knowle Hospital in Sunderland to aircraft procurement for the armed forces, and from the future development of the Prince of Wales Education Summer Schools to the interests of livestock farmers.
But they tend to relate to subjects that would not in other circumstances be regarded as particularly newsworthy. Furthermore, they merely confirm what we already knew from his public speeches: that the Prince of Wales takes a great interest in particular issues, such as agriculture, architecture, education and complementary medicine, and that he has no hesitation in lobbying on behalf of his pet projects.
What is, perhaps striking, is the vehemence with he expresses his personal views on some highly charged political issues. In November 2004, for example, he told the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke:
My Summer Schools are also challenging the fashionable view that teachers should not impart bodies of knowledge but should instead act as ‘facilitators’ or ‘coaches’, a notion which I find difficult to understand, I must admit.
Indeed, in an admission that his distrust of modern educational methods was well known, he admitted to Clarke: “Perhaps I am now too dangerous to be associated with!”
Towards the end of an extremely long and wide-ranging letter to Tony Blair, the then prime minister in September 2004, he complained that the delay in the procurement by the Ministry of Defence of a new helicopter to replace the Lynx was “just one more example of where our Armed Forces are being forced to do an extremely challenging job (particularly in Iraq) without the necessary resources”. Had a copy of these comments fallen into the hands of the Conservative opposition, the results would have been politically explosive.
Defenders of Charles have suggested that the letters merely represent part of a legitimate process of educating himself in the business of government. Yet the older he becomes (and at 66 he is already over the standard retirement age in the UK), the more incongruous seems the idea that he should be able to treat Whitehall as some sort of soft play area.
Indeed, the notion that writing hectoring notes to ministers counts as preparation for the role of constitutional monarch in the 21st century seems questionable in the extreme: it’s a bit like a currency forger claiming they are merely educating themselves in preparation for becoming head of the Royal Mint.
There will no doubt be plenty of debate about the significance of the letters. They do, however, provide some extremely rare documentary evidence about the contemporary relationship between the palace and the British government.
But in securing their release, has the Guardian damaged the ability of senior royals to express their private views to ministers? Speaking on the Today Programme, the former Foreign Office Minister, Denis McShane, claimed:
No member of the royal family will ever dare write to the government again … for fear that their private views just going to be front page news.
If only that were true. The Guardian was only able to secure the release of the letters because it made its original request to see them before changes were made to the Freedom of Information Act in the dying days of Gordon Brown’s administration. This removed any public interest appeal against a decision to withhold correspondence relating to the Queen or Prince Charles.
Indeed, the Guardian reports that David Cameron is already planning cross-party talks to ensure that this sort of revelation can’t be repeated. So Charles will be able to continue to engage in this kind of lobbying without any fear that his comments will be made public.
McShane also suggested, in common with some other former recipients of Charles’ letters, that they simply contained the sorts of innocuous musings that might have been written by “a retired university vice-chancellor” or “a retired archbishop”. The public will now have the opportunity to assess that for themselves. But if they agree with McShane’s conclusion, they might well ask why a government eager to control public spending spent more than £400,000 trying to keep the letters secret.