How Charles writes up to 1,000 letters a year to the great and good, scrawled at his desk late into the night, writes RICHARD KAY

  • Prince Charles often writes to ministers, civil servants and public figures
  • At his most productive period, Charles has written 1,000 letters a year
  • To regular recipients, these letters are known as the 'black spider' memos
  • However, previously leaked letters reveal a snapshot of his political views

Prince Charles can often be found in his study late at night writing letters to ministers, civil servants and other prominent figures

Prince Charles can often be found in his study late at night writing letters to ministers, civil servants and other prominent figures

Long after the servants – and his wife – have retired to their beds at Clarence House, Prince Charles can often be found in his study, a lamp burning on the desk as he scratches away in black ink. At his most productive period, his passionate words have poured out at the rate of 1,000 letters a year to ministers, civil servants and other prominent public figures.

To regular recipients, this correspondence is known as the ‘black spider’ memos, which have been thumping on to the desks of successive government members for well over three decades.

An underlined phrase here, an exclamation mark there and notes of emphasis in the margins everywhere. This has been the Prince’s modus operandi for tackling the issues of the day for so long now that no one among his staff can remember a time when he was not crafting these often heartfelt missives in the dead of night.

He sees it as his constitutional duty to speak his mind about the subjects that matter to him. Indeed, the closer he edges to the throne, the more opinionated he seems to become. He freely admits that he is an ‘inveterate interferer and meddler’.

Only last week he made a rare public defence of his interventions during a visit to Washington. Asked why he ‘still cared so much’ about environmental issues, he replied: ‘Well, I’ll turn it round the other way. I think you’d be surprised if I didn’t care about things,’ adding: ‘There’s an awful lot to worry about.’

To some, these regal intrusions have become dangerously parti pris and political – a charge Charles denies. In private, he maintains that because he’s been around so long and meets so many different people his own experiences of many matters are often greater than those of the minister charged with dealing with them.

Indeed, there is an argument he would have avoided the controversy over the 27 letters written to seven Whitehall departments in a six-month period between September 2004 and March 2005 – and seized back the initiative – by disclosing them in full himself. One former advisor tells me that he would have urged the Prince to publish them on his website to allow the public to make up its mind about their content.

‘Publish and be damned, because what he was saying was just great common sense that would strike a chord with the public,’ the ex-aide says. Instead, a legal battle has waged for ten years.

According to former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court because he said the notes risked sacrificing the political neutrality of the future king, they reflect the Prince’s ‘most deeply held personal views and beliefs’.

Yet not all his views are expressed with sense. Long before these fears surfaced, it was known that Charles was at odds with the then Labour government. In 2002, he was reported to have told Tony Blair that the Government would not dare attack ‘blacks, gays and ethnic minorities’ in the way that supporters of fox-hunting were being persecuted.

And to which was added the alarmist point, apparently made by the Prince to a senior politician, that if the Labour government ever did ban fox-hunting, ‘I might as well leave this country and spend the rest of my life skiing’.

Former Attorney General Dominic King (pictured) fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court
Long before the 'spider letter' fears surfaced, it was known that Charles was at odds with Tony Blair's (pictured) Labour government

Former Attorney General Dominic King (left) fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. However, long before his fears surfaced, it was known that Charles was at odds with Tony Blair's (right) Labour government

Much more sensitive was a letter leaked to the Mail that he sent to Lord Irvine, the then Lord Chancellor. In it, the Prince railed about new hygiene laws in care homes that forbade volunteer workers from cooking meals in their own homes and then taking them to residential homes for the elderly or hospices to be reheated and served. Pouring scorn on the legislation, he wrote: ‘Many of these sorts of volunteers are middle-aged ladies who have cooked for their families for 40 years without poisoning anyone.

‘In order to protect the elderly from a tiny but theoretical risk, a whole section of volunteers is in danger of being alienated. These sort of people will not volunteer if they are patronised or if regulation makes it impractical.’

In the same letter, he derided legislation, also affecting the preparation of food in care homes, which made staff throw away wooden chopping boards and replace them with plastic ones colour-coded for meat, vegetables and fish – only to find they had to change them back again because wood turned out to be more hygienic than plastic.

Charles also raised the issue of fire safety doors in homes which legislation decreed should be so firmly sprung to ensure they close that many frail old people were unable to open them. And he complained about the ‘passing of ever more proscriptive laws… the blame-culture they can in practice encourage, and the bureaucratic red tape which accompanies new rules. The more I talk to people, the more convinced I am that this cumulative effect has the potential to be deeply corrosive to the fabric of our society.’

He also questioned how new rules and regulations were making people so over-cautious that even the quality of Army training was being affected. Military exercises using live ammunition were so rare because ‘modern safety precautions are so strict’ that he feared for the effectiveness of the training when the soldiers had to face the real thing.

Prince Charles is believed to have once confronted Lord Irvine with his concerns over the Human Rights Act

Prince Charles is believed to have once confronted Lord Irvine with his concerns over the Human Rights Act

The Prince also raised the extraordinary but all too realistic possibility – one that he had been told was where current trends were leading us – of a soldier suing his superior officer for making a poor decision in battle which results in his being wounded.

And he mentioned that he had heard of a case where the surviving member of a two-man military aircraft that crashed faced a possible manslaughter charge, as well as the threat of being sued by the widow of the other pilot.

‘Why should any other pilot in that squadron, knowing there is a risk of litigation if he gets it wrong, take any calculated risk, exercise his professional judgment, push himself to the limits or fly in marginal weather,’ Charles asked. ‘In short, why should individuals continue to operate in the way which has always made our Armed Forces so capable and professional if a different set of rules based on individual rights makes the potential penalties too great?

He also confronted Lord Irvine with his concerns over the Human Rights Act.

The leaking of the letter caused a political storm and sent Downing Street into meltdown. Royal aides reacted by saying the Prince saw himself as a ‘dissident’ working against the current political opinion. Others said Charles had become the only effective opposition to the then all-powerful Labour government.

So will Charles now go quiet?

It seems highly unlikely. The Prince has received backing from the Prime Minister to continue writing. Freedom of Information laws have already been amended to give him absolute exemption to his future contacts with ministers and David Cameron has indicated they could be tightened further to prevent this week’s ruling from the Supreme Court.

It would certainly be out of character if he were to go quiet. Certainly his enthusiasms – and, let’s face it, some prejudices – are undimmed, and for as long as he is Prince of Wales he believes he has carte blanche to interfere as much as he wishes.

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