When a member of Britain’s royal family says something – almost anything, except possibly in Prince Charles’s case about organic farming – so-called royal watchers immediately go into close textual analysis. “What did he mean by that?” as the Habsburg empire’s Prince Metternich is alleged to have remarked on hearing of the death of his wily opponent, the French Charles Talleyrand, in the 19th century. Now we don’t have to wait for the news to arrive on horseback – it’s blogged and dissected immediately.
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Thus with Prince Charles’s latest intervention in the BBC’s Thought for the Day slot on the Today programme this morning. On the surface it was all about tolerance and the worrying rise of extremism, particularly religious extremism. Since the talk was pre-recorded on Monday, it was not prompted by the outrage in Berlin later that evening, but within minutes it was being parsed as a veiled attack on political loudmouths such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.
“We are now seeing the rise of many populist groups across the world that are increasingly aggressive to those who adhere to a minority faith,” the prince intoned. “All of this has deeply disturbing echoes of the dark days of the 1930s … Whichever religious path we follow the destination is the same: to value and respect the other person.”
Charles was clearly thinking more of the killers of Isis than ostentatious Islamophobes such as Trump. For his opinion on the orange-haired president-elect, we will probably have to wait for the eventual release of his private diaries some centuries hence, or at least the leak of a private memorandum such as the one describing the Chinese leadership at the time of the Hong Kong takeover as a set of “appalling old waxworks” – though he is unlikely to want to upset the US in quite the same way. It would, however, be interesting to be a fly on the wall if and when the new president pays a call on the Queen and her heir, supposedly some time next summer – though Trump will probably waste no time in tweeting that encounter of his own accord. Both the Queen and Trump are Scottish landowners, so that should help the conversation along.
Of more significance in Charles’s broadcast was his reference to the story of the nativity – and that was pointed indeed. It unfolds, he said, “with the fleeing of the holy family to escape violent persecution”, and he added for good measure that the prophet Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina in search of religious freedom.
The prince has studied Islam, its beliefs, practices and art, long before 9/11 made it fashionable to do so. It was one of the reasons why more than 20 years ago he spoke about being a defender of faith when he becomes king, rather than defender of the faith – a statement that caused the established church, whose faith he will be defending, conniptions at the time.
Today’s broadcast indicates that he is at least not planning to convert any time soon. In some ways it echoes the Queen’s recent Christmas broadcasts, which have mentioned her own faith increasingly frequently in recent years, though maybe a lifetime of discretion makes it doubtful that she would go quite as far as her son in highlighting the contemporary resonances of the flight of Jesus and his parents. Farage might take note, though – although he’d probably claim the baby Jesus was an extremist benefit tourist who brought his troubles on himself.
Prince Charles: rising intolerance risks repeat of horrors of past
This was not the prince’s first appearance on Thought for the Day – it’s his third over the past 21 years – there is a sense that the monarchy is moving on. The Queen’s relinquishment of some of her royal duties and charitable patronages, the news that she is not going to undertake any more long-distance foreign trips, and indeed the delay in going to Sandringham because she and her husband have not been well, illustrate that she and the duke are now in their nineties. Their longevity is a tribute to modern medicine and the robustness of the royal genes, but a change of reign is not too far off and one day in the not too distant future Charles himself will be making that Christmas Day broadcast. If he carries on with the veiled hints, it may be less soporific for a nation replete with turkey and pud than his mother’s.
• Stephen Bates covered the royal family for the Guardian for 12 years and is the author of Royalty Inc: Britain’s Best-Known Brand (Aurum Press, 2015)/The Guardian