Prince Charles' letters reveal a quirky, old-fashioned brand of conservatism

The 'black spider' letters show that Charles is a good sort of prince

Prince Charles
(Image credit: REUTERS)

For a decade the anti-monarchist British newspaper The Guardian fought for the release of letters Prince Charles wrote to government officials, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair. The prince was lobbying the government, and so these letters collectively received a sinister name: the "black spider" letters.

Was Charles pinning parliamentarians down on certain votes? Was the palace engaged in a quiet, pen-and-ink coup against democracy? Would a future King Charles become a meddling, overbearing tyrant?

If only!

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A small batch of 27 letters was finally released after much fighting between Buckingham Palace and the government. Prince Charles was indeed revealed — but as what?

Brendan O'Neill, one of the sharpest writers on the scene, believes that — ironically, deliciously, hilariously — Prince Charles was exposed as a Guardianista, a man who shares the same preening environmentalism, anti-corporatism, and diet fad-ism of the fashionable left.

It isn't surprising that an aloof royal, a future divine king, should valorize the countryside, elevate the natural over the manmade, and be sniffy about fat plebs. It's somewhat more surprising that the supposedly liberal Guardian shares pretty much all those views. [spiked!]

But in focusing on their shared qualities, it would be easy to miss the truth. Far from being a full-throated Guardianista, Prince Charles is his own kind of conservative: an ecological preservationist, an arch-traditionalist, and a tiller and keeper of the soil, rather than a devotee of capitalistic creative destruction.

In his letters, the prince lobbies specifically for the toothfish, a species of cod he worried was being overfished to the potential decline of the species (and a classic English dish). He criticizes the "education experts" who he feared were turning children into "better robots," rather than fully capable and enquiring human beings. He worries that British armed forces were being given inadequate equipment for the tough job they were doing in the war on terror.

Prince Charles' conservatism is characterized by "trusteeship," rather than the more modern concept of ownership. The latter assumes that the possessor of a property is entitled to extract all its market value, even if it destroys the use of that property and its goods for all posterity. Charles, ever a royal, allies himself to posterity's interests.

The prince's overwhelming concern for conservation comes forward in his letters to the secretary of state for Northern Ireland: "As usual I repeated myself — yet again — as regards the potential value to be realized from the regeneration and re-use of redundant historic landmark sites." In the same letter he promotes the settlement of Poundbury, a community that was being built on lands belonging to Duchy of Cornwall, according to the traditionalist principles of town-planning and architecture he holds dear.

On this subject, the prince can be scathing. In the 1980s, he compared the result of modernist architects unfavorably to the Battle of Britain. "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble," he writes. Did you notice that for the prince, these are "our" buildings? Lovely.

Conservatives are most likely to object to Charles' environmentalism. He very early turned his own farmland toward organic production. Charles is also a devoted believer in climate change. Commenting on the prince's conservatism, Rod Dreher wrote in 2012:

On a moral and spiritual level, Charles believes that civilization isn't sustainable unless humanity finds a way to live in balance with nature. For him, climate change is the ultimate judgment on a civilization that has rejected limits and fetishized economic growth and material prosperity over spiritual values. [The American Conservative]

In the black spider letters, Prince Charles is found criticizing supermarkets, which were rapidly displacing older markets, grocers, and butchers, and whose effect on farmers has mostly been one of squeezing the profit out of the business. Given his other concerns, it is likely Charles worries about collapsing biodiversity and flattened food-ways under the standardization of large market actors. Charles worries about the entire market ecology of food production.

At the same time, a kind of anti-leftist ecological concern peeks through. Charles wanted farmers to be able to cull the population of badgers, which had the protection of legislation created by animal-rights activists.

The monarchy's sympathizers might say that it is precisely because Charles' position is partly insulated from corporate interests and moral fads that he is able to take a longer view of issues related to England's countryside, its architectural patrimony, its historical sites, and the environment.

Far from revealing an overweening royal authority or a disconnected left-wing scion, Charles' letters show a gentle, far-seeing, if unfashionable monarch. In a sense, Charles quietly exercises the highest role a monarch can play in the modern administrative state. He is an insistent voice for tradition's value to posterity, and an advocate for the men (and fish) that the market, or the bureaucratic state, would overlook and destroy.

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Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.