The Man Who Will Be King

Prince Charles is a most uncommon bloke


    May 15, 1978 TIME Cover: The Man Who Will Be King
    Britain's Prince Charles

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    To aid hard-core problem youngsters, Charles works assiduously to build the Prince's Trust, a charity that will aid people normally beyond the royal gaze: young ex-criminals, immigrant youths, juvenile delinquents. Thanks largely to Charles' insistence, black and white social workers, a youth and a woman are being placed among the usual Establishment elders on the board of Charles' other major benefit, the Silver Jubilee Trust.

    In his earnestness, Charles can sometimes walk in where even constables fear to tread. Last summer, visiting a London youth club, he encountered a clash between black demonstrators and the police.

    Confronted by the Prince, Socialist Workers' Party Member Kim Gordon, a British Ghanian, explained that the demonstration was against police harassment. "Couldn't you come together and discuss it?" Charles asked. To the police at his elbow, he said, "What about it?" Before leaving, he accepted a protest leaflet and pleaded, "See if you can sort things out. You cannot go around like this." The intervention drew fire. "I don't care who he is," snapped the head of the police union. "He should not have said anything."

    The incident revealed a certain princely naivete, but also showed that Charles shrewdly understands the real source of royal authority in a democracy. "The first function of any monarchy," he has said, "is the human concern for people." Charles inherited this appreciation: the smashing success of the Queen's Silver Jubilee was in part a thank-you note for all the gracious concern she has lavished on her subjects for the past quartercentury. Over the years Prime Ministers have come to cherish their weekly meetings with her, knowing that her assessment of what Britons will tolerate, and what they will not, is particularly acute.

    Although forbidden by custom to intervene in partisan politics, she has fully exercised the rights of the monarchy that the 19th century historian Walter Bagehot described in his classic The English Constitution: "The right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn."

    From time to time the Queen has used these rights incisively. In 1974, for example, she blocked Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath's attempt to form a minority coalition government after a Conservative defeat in the general elections; under the constitution, she told Heath bluntly, she was required to summon the leader of Commons' biggest party — Labor's Harold Wilson — to form a Cabinet.

    Britain has no written constitution — simply a collection of precedents embodied in acts of Parliament and historic understandings that have grown out of political crises and conflicts over the centuries. In the accepted framework of British politics, Heath had no choice but to accept his sovereign's verdict. The Queen, for her part, could not have spoken out publicly; she would have seemed to be usurping the power of Parliament. There is a built-in fiction to the British system: namely, the Cabinet is no more than the servant of the Crown. The reverse is closer to the truth.

    Nonetheless, the myth works well enough in real life, although perhaps not so perfectly as ardent monarchists claim.

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