THERE might not be a great deal of goodwill remaining for Tony Blair’s tenure in Downing Street, but it is difficult not to have some sympathy for a prime minister who had to find a diplomatic way to respond to a stream of correspondence from a member of Royal Family.
It emerged yesterday that the Prince of Wales sent a series of private letters to Labour government ministers ten years ago, setting out his concerns on political and environmental matters, and in certain cases encouraging specific action.
A total of 27 letters, including ten written by Charles personally, were released following a legal battle over privacy.
Subject matters ranged wildly. In one letter to Mr Blair in 2004, the Prince was concerned about the Armed Forces suffering from a lack of resources because of budgetary pressures. “I fear that this is just one more example of where our Armed Forces are being asked to do an extremely challenging job (particularly in Iraq) without the necessary resources,” he wrote.
On another occasion, he leaned on a UK environment minister to tackle illegal fishing of the Patagonian toothfish – the favoured prey of the albatross, but perhaps an issue less relevant to frontline UK government policy than the limitations of the Lynx helicopter.
Topics of the “black spider” memos – so-called because of the handwritten comments that Charles wrote in a slightly scrawled style – also included badger culling and alternative medicines.
But for Mr Blair’s government, even the fate of the beleaguered toothfish would have required some serious political tapdancing to give the Prince his place while at the same time trying to keep him at arm’s length. It’s easy to be dismissive about that challenge now, but at any time during that period, the heir could have become king.
It is no secret that Charles has strong feelings on certain subjects (as many architects know). But do the letters show the Prince is simply letting his feelings be known? Being heir to the throne should not deny him the right to hold an opinion. Or do they demonstrate an abuse of his position?
It seems clear from the correspondence that Charles did try to influence government policy, and he overstepped the mark by some distance when recommending appointments.
That still leaves the question of whether the correspondence itself was ill-considered. On that front, the Prince is found wanting. Had he wished to speak up, this could and should have been done with more transparency.
Charles holds many valuable opinions. Writing privately to government ministers is not the way to pursue them – a means should be found by which he can contribute to national debates over issues that clearly matter to him without compromising himself, or anyone else.
Rise in jobless must be addressed
AN increase of 19,000 in Scotland’s unemployment figure for the first three months of the year represents a reversal of recent trends.
Last year, the jobless total fell in each quarter, by a cumulative total of 45,000. At the end of each of these periods, the Scottish unemployment rate was lower, or no higher than, the UK rate.
The latest figures show Scotland overtaking the UK unemployment rate, with 6 per cent compared to 5.5 per cent, as unemployment falls in the rest of the UK to a seven-year low.
There is reason not to panic just yet. Unemployment in Scotland has fallen by nearly 30 per cent since its peak during the recession in 2010.
And within the new figures, there are elements of good news. More women than ever are in work, with participation rates now at 76.6 per cent for ages 16 to 64. And the figures also show the lowest youth unemployment level since the same period in 2008.
But the 19,000 jump in unemployment north of the Border, in contrast to the UK figure’s fall of 35,000, is a significant cause for concern for the Scottish Government.
There is little to be gained by blaming the Scottish figure on UK policies, especially when the UK rate has fallen during the same period.
New Scottish Secretary David Mundell struck a conciliatory note yesterday when he urged Westminster and Holyrood to work together to tackle the economic difficulties. The Scottish Government would do well to take Mr Mundell up on his offer, put distractions aside, and re-address the key issue of sustained economic growth.