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11 January 2001Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

The 'madness' of Prince Charles
Why does the world go mad for a man once dismissed as a 'loon' who talked to plants?

by Graham Lee

Prince Charles has got a brand new fad - he wants to save the albatross. In the February issue of UK magazine The Field he expresses his concern that over-fishing in the Southern Ocean is threatening the albatross population.

And he's being taken seriously. According to Brendan May, chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council, 'The prince has never highlighted an environmental problem and been proved wrong' (1). Are we really talking about the same Prince Charles, once described by a national newspaper as 'a loon with his thoughts', talking to plants?

A year ago, Charles opened the new millennium with a Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4, instructing his future subjects to follow the 'grain of nature' and 'cherish traditional wisdom'. His Reith Lecture (usually given by distinguished experts rather than pompous princes) in May 2000 urged us to rediscover 'a sense of the sacred in our dealings with the natural world'. And in November 2000 he told the British Medical Association's Festival of Medicine that mad cow disease and floods were the result of 'man's arrogant disregard for the delicate balance of Nature'.

Rather than being derided, Charles' comments have set the terms of national debate on environmental issues. Now BBC political editor Andrew Marr praised the prince's Reith Lecture for its promotion of spiritual values and self-restraint over 'consumer economics'. A Downing Street spokesman said that by attacking GM crop trials Charles had made 'an important contribution to an important public debate' (despite the government's nominal support for GM technology). And the Met Office endorsed Charles' 'concerns' about global warming. According to Dr Mae-Wan Ho, prominent anti-GM scientist, 'the prince is more in touch with the common people than our elected government' (2).

Was it really only a decade ago that Charles' support for fashionable causes like integrated medicine, organic farming and mysticism was laughed at rather than lauded? In the 1980s, the Mirror reported that the prince had had a 'mystical experience' in the jungle with his spiritual guru Laurens van der Post, horrified at the prospect of Charles sitting 'cross-legged on the throne wearing a kaftan and eating muesli' (3). The Daily Telegraph made great play of Lord Northfield's fears that the prince had joined the 'Loony Green Brigade' (4). The Guardian reported rumours that Charles was 'dabbling in the occult', following revelations of his support for the creation of a chair of parapsychology (to investigate the supernatural world) at the University of Wales. In 1980, one Guardian commentator mocked Charles' idea for a bottle bank outside Buckingham Palace, wondering if this 'strange machine' would lead to the transformation of the palace into 'allotments with windmills creaking away in an attempt to provide electric power, and composting lavatories...available for all royal officials' (5).

Back then, Charles' nutty preoccupations were seen as a sign of his eccentricity (or even insanity), and many expressed doubts about his suitability for the throne. So how come he is now respected by scientists, environmentalists and commentators alike for his 'serious' contributions to 'important' debates?

One thing is certain: Charles has not changed. He is still an intellectually challenged buffoon who assumes the God-given right to spout nonsense on every subject under the sun. And despite his new-age media image, he is still a traditional old toff who in the first week of January broke his shoulder while out with the Staffordshire hunt (though at the height of anti-hunting fever, the media criticisms of the green prince's penchant for killing foxes were interestingly muted).

What has changed is that society has taken on board the kind of mysticism and suspicion of science that made Charles a laughing stock in the 1980s. And with his views covering everything from birds to buildings, from the proposed European defence force to GM crop trials, it looks like the prince will be an albatross around our necks for some time to come.

(1) Daily Telegraph, 11 January 2001

(2) Guardian, 24 May 2000

(3) Mirror, 26 October 1984

(4) Daily Telegraph, 31 October 1986

(5) Guardian, 1 May 1980

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