BEFORE Prince Charles offended one of the world’s most febrile leaders, his official visit to Canada was proceeding very much as normal. A lifetime as understudy to his mother has left him well equipped to greet pensioners dressed as blueberries, bash wooden pegs with giant mallets and not make Benny Hill faces when admiring statues of naked ladies. He wore his favourite double-breasted suits, Camilla went for the expat vote in a tartan-trimmed frock coat and, until he visited the immigration museum in Halifax, it was folk dancing and pleasantries as usual.
Then, on Monday, he let off the international fireworks. As he was being shown around by 78-year-old Marienne Ferguson, whose Jewish family fled to Canada from Poland to escape the Nazis, the prince said: “And now Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler.” Or something like that. Mrs Ferguson can’t quite remember the king-to-be’s exact words and seems alarmed at the fuss they stirred up.
The fuss has been considerable. Charles is far from the first person to notice that Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea is familiar to Hitler’s move on the Sudetenland in 1938. Hillary Clinton, Senator John McCain, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble and several Russian commentators have compared the Russian leader’s designs on other territories to the Nazi expansion.
None of them, however, is a king in waiting, with a joint D-Day engagement with the Russian president in the diary for next month. And, given that 26 million Russians died defeating the Nazis, the comparison was regarded by many Russians as odious.
Putin yesterday spoke out for the first time on the issue saying the prince’s reported comments were “unacceptable” and “wrong”.
The Russian president said: “It reminds me of a good proverb: ‘You are angry. That means you are wrong.”’
“He has been to our country more than once, if he made such a comparison, it is unacceptable and I am sure he understands that as a man of manners. This is not what monarchs do. But over the past few years we have seen so much, nothing surprises me any longer.”
The Russian embassy in London was quicker to complain, describing the comments as “outrageous” and demanding an explanation, just hours after they were reported in the world’s media.
Foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich fumed: “If these words were really said, then undoubtedly they are not worthy of a future British monarch. We view the use of the western press by members of the British Royal Family to spread the propaganda campaign against Russia on a pressing issue – that is, the situation in Ukraine – as unacceptable, outrageous and low.”Labour MP Mike Gapes said that if Charles wanted to make political points he should abdicate and stand for election.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage tentatively suggested it might have been better had the prince not got involved. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg spoke up for Charles in a roundabout way, saying that he saw no reason for the royals to take “a Trappist vow of silence”.
Labour leader Ed Miliband whispered: “Well, he does have a point.”
The Russian media leapt in, with Moskovsky Komsomolets suggesting Charles’s remarks risked “triggering an international scandal”. State-funded television channel Russia Today’s senior political correspondent, Anissa Naouai, told viewers: “If anyone knows real Nazis, it’s the Royal Family.”
Later in the week, deputy ambassador Alexander Kramarenko met deputy senior Foreign Office director Sian MacLeod in Whitehall. The discussion moved beyond the prince’s comments to a wider discussion of events in Ukraine, described as “fairly robust”. Afterwards, an official explained that it wasn’t the Foreign Office’s role to comment on private conversations and that MacLeod had “restated the government’s hope that ahead of the Ukrainian presidential elections Russia would step back from comment oractions provoking instability in Ukraine”.
The Russians claimed that MacLeod had dodged the issue and not explained the prince’s comments.
“All of this,” an embassy spokesperson said, “cannot but cause regret”. There are two schools of thought about what is going on here.
One is that, despite his years of practice in the gentle arts of the meet-and-greet, Charles has inherited his father’s gaffe gene and is too verbally incontinent to be safe out on his own. The second is that he knows very well what he is doing, is fully aware of the media’s predisposition to leap on his every word and plays up to it almost as skilfully as Diana, his late wife.
He has spoken about his desire to “get as much done as possible” before he ascends the throne and has to curtail his activities and opinions. This latest outburst has been interpreted by some as him simply ticking “antagonise Russia” off his to-do list.
Professor Robert Hazell, of the constitution unit at University College London, explains: “Formally there are no rules about the Prince of Wales, but as heir apparent he is expected to display some of the same reticence as the monarch. The closer he gets to becoming monarch, and fulfilling some of her roles, the more reticent he has to be.
“Nor are there any rules about what counts as a private conversation: the media are everywhere, and anything they pick up they regard as public.”
Private Eye summed up Prince Charles’ situation perfectly on its royal jubilee cover. A picture of the ceremony in Westminster Abbey, it shows the words “Long live the Queen” coming from the congregation. Charles replies: “Well, up to a point.”
Aged 65, he has reached pensionable age without ever having had a proper job. In fact, he is still waiting for his job to start and, with his 88-year-old mother in pretty good shape, there is no vacancy. Her mother lived to 101. The Queen believes that service to the nation is her life-long duty. The wait’s not over yet.
Royal rune-readers do say that there has been a shift in the top tier of the monarchy, with the Queen moving a step back and Charles taking on more of the heavy lifting. Last year, she passed on the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Sri Lanka. Charles went instead. Her travel commitments have been pared right back with Charles – and Prince William, Kate and George – sharing the official duties.
After William’s slam-dunk wedding, the birth of his son and family tour of Australia and New Zealand, many eyes are now on him to assume the throne. An heir apparent with grey hair feels wrong and there are plenty of observers who feel it would be a mercy to leave grandpa at home with his herbal infusions and give the next generation a chance.
Skipping Charles would be tough on him, some royalists argue, but good for the institution, bringing in the fresh and photogenic in place of the old, cranky and obsessed withcereal production methods.
Heir apparent is having none of it. Instead, he appears to be pushing himself to the heart of the state, preparing the ground for when his time, finally, comes. As well as his diatribes against modern architecture and in favour of homeopathy and herbal medicine, he regularly writes closely-argued missives (known as “black spider letters”) to Cabinet ministers. His arrival, in wellies, at the flooded Somerset Levels last year, showed up Environment Secretary Owen Paterson who was in and out without getting his suit muddy.
Graham Smith, leader of anti-monarchy pressure group Republic, said: “At the moment he’s free to do and say what he pleases and I don’t think this will stop when he is king. In fact, he’s trying to soften people up, so that when he is king he can continue to speak out.”
This matters, says Smith, not just because Charles is apt to make what he describes as “inappropriate and unhelpful comments. Most people agree Putin is a very unpleasant character but to make a comparison with Nazi Germany is pretty crass.
“He should never be commenting on political issues at all. He is in line to become head of state. It is not a popularity contest, it is not about what he or other people think about any one individual. His role is to help the country conduct its official affairs and that is not what he has been doing.”
Much of what the prince does to influence others is behind closed doors. The Guardian’s request to see the black spider letters, made using Freedom of Information legislation, is still to be decided by the courts. The law has since been changed to make this type of correspondence immune from FOI disclosure. Dr Bob Morris, a former Home Office under-secretary responsible for constitutional affairs, underlines that the prince cannot be held to account for his pronouncements.
“Strictly speaking, Prince Charles is not an office holder like his mother but he is next in line and in effect a part of the state headship. His record so far has been not infrequently to use the platform his position allows him to gain publicity for personal causes. These are a mixed bag including his admirable charities on the one hand and idiosyncratic views/ventures on the other.
“We are told that he will adhere strictly to his mother’s policy [of keeping schtum] when he succeeds her, and it will certainly be wise for him to do so.
“He has, at times, chosen to exploit a public position in the knowledge that he can escape the accountability that applies to normal public office holders. Of course, it is to be hoped that no-one would want to muzzle him entirely but, though he is not immune to public criticism, he has been thought to feel less obliged than others in public life to take reasonable account of it.”
Is Charles’s inability to open his mouth without stuffing a stout Lobb brogue into it damaging the very institution he is desperate to lead? Graham Smith thinks it is. “Anything that politicises the monarchy helps the republican cause. It is a political institution and these comments highlight the fact that they can’t be held to account.”
Twitter star @KngHnryVIII, author of Monarch Of Your Bedchamber, knows a bit about safeguarding the future of the Royal Family, offending important people and dealing with violent despots. He disagrees.
“I think Prince Charles could be a fine king, and do his family great honour, but he really must be far, far more violent. The true leader is one who can be both capricious and terrifying. In your era, you would call it Putinesque.
“The whole point of being a royal is to make one’s family and/or England the centre of the universe,” he says via the regal iPhone.