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What will we learn from the 'Black Spider' letters?

letters 150x150 Friday 27 March 2015

Dr Bryce Evans, Senior Lecturer in History, discusses the possible impact of the 'Black Spider' documents - and asks whether this will cause a shift in the way we see the monarchy's relationship with politics. 

The Supreme Court has ruled that 27 letters written from Prince Charles to the government between 2004 and 2005 can be published. These form part of hundreds of so-called 'Black Spider' memos and letters (named after Charles' distinctive scrawl) in which the heir apparent has outlined his views to cabinet on a number of issues over the years. 

Although some details are likely to be redacted between now and publication, the public should soon know the content of this chunk of Charles' correspondence with cabinet ministers. So why all the fuss about a few letters? 

First of all, the ruling is significant because it represents the culmination of a very lengthy campaign by the Guardian newspaper to reveal exactly what Prince Charles was writing to cabinet about. To freedom of information campaigners the ruling is a victory, not least because in the course of this parliament alone the government has poured hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money into fighting to keep the Black Spider memos secret.

But there's also the question of democratic accountability. 2010 legislation granted the royal household a total exemption from freedom of information (FOI) requests. Charles, up to now, has been lobbying MPs, ministers and government departments with the confidence that any FOI requests about the nature of such lobbying will be turned down.

The letters now to be published cover correspondence to seven government departments between 2004-5; this represents just a small proportion of Charles' lobbying efforts over the years. 

We're often told that the Queen is 'above politics' but this ignores the regular, direct and confidential access to our elected leader the prime minister enjoyed by the sitting monarch and, as this case shows, her son. This, in turn, raises questions about how transparent British democracy really is. 

I suspect that the publication of the letters could reveal that Charles has been lobbying cabinet on issues close to his heart which many of us would agree with him on: environmental sustainability; giving young people better opportunities; protection of our architectural heritage. But is it right that Charles or, for that matter, anyone else who isn't elected, has such ability to influence senior policy makers?

Yet surely - as Clarence House and Number 10 intimated in response to the ruling - the man likely to become King has a right to a bit of interference now and again? It is this consideration which raises the inevitable historical parallels. The well-worn example is Charles I, whose political interference eventually led to the executioner's block. 

A contrasting figure is Edward VII who, like Charles, was heir-apparent for the best part of sixty years but, unlike Charles, was kept away from politics by his mother, Victoria. Charles has also been unfavourably compared to his mother, Elizabeth II, who has - unlike her son - been scrupulous in keeping her political views out of the public eye.

Historical considerations, I think, are what make this ruling so important. Will it serve as a check on Charles' instinct to air his political views when/if he takes the throne and see him assume a non-meddling role (like that of his mother)? Or will Charles, if he becomes King, be an outspoken monarch and, if so, would this signify a change in the constitutional settlement forged in Civil War and Glorious Revolution whereby the monarchy must adhere to clear limits? 

Whatever the letters reveal, one thing is for sure: Charles does not believe in beating around the bush. That's why their content, if not earth-shattering, is sure to lead to further debate about the monarchy's role in modern British politics. 

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