Reflecting on HRH The Prince of Wales’s Role as Heir to the Throne

sketch.1541418351959To mark the Prince of Wales’s 70th Birthday, Robert Hazell reflects on the difficult role of Heir to the Throne, with reference to the roles of heirs apparent in other Western European monarchies. This comparative material has been assembled as part of our preparation for a forthcoming conference on monarchies in western Europe, to be held next March.

The Prince of Wales is 70 years old today. At an age when most people are comfortably enjoying their retirement, Prince Charles is still preparing to assume the role for which he has been waiting almost all his life. He became heir to the throne in 1952, and so far his apprenticeship has lasted 67 years. In 2011 he became the longest serving heir apparent in British history, overtaking King Edward VII, who spent 59 years in the role.

That is one of the difficulties of being heir apparent: a very long and uncertain period of waiting. Another is that the role is unspecified. The constitution is silent about the role; so it is left to each heir apparent to make of it what they can. Some, like Edward VII, have pursued wine, women and song (and gambling, shooting and racing); others like Prince Charles have a more serious bent, and want to make a contribution to the public good. The difficulty is to find a way of contributing to public life without becoming embroiled in political controversy.

Prince Charles’s greatest contribution has been through the work of the Prince’s Trust, which has helped almost 900,000 disadvantaged young people into jobs, education and training. But that is not his only charitable activity: there is also the Prince’s Foundation, which focuses on the built environment, heritage, community education projects, and promoting culture across the UK. And there is the Prince of Wales’s Charitable Foundation, a grant making trust which has awarded over £50 million to projects ranging from sustainable farming to humanitarian relief. It is a testament to the Prince’s wide ranging interests that he has founded over a dozen charities, ranging from the British Asian Trust to the Royal Drawing School. Following a review earlier this year, the Prince’s many charitable activities have been brought together under three main organisations: the Prince’s Trust, and his two Foundations.

In other European monarchies it is the norm for the heir apparent to have their own foundation, as well as being patron of a wide range of other charities. Their foundations support a similar range of causes: children and young people, sustainable development, the heritage, culture, sport. They can also reflect particular interests: in Denmark the Crown Prince’s Foundation supports scholarships to Harvard (where Prince Frederik studied Politics for a year), and scientific expeditions (the Prince was also an avid explorer). 

Where the other monarchies differ from the UK is in the range of training offered to the heir apparent. They range more widely in three respects. First, it is common during their university years for the heir apparent to study abroad, often at a university in the US, or sometimes the UK: and they frequently go on to do a Master’s degree. Second, the subjects which they typically study are law, politics or international relations: subjects which are clearly relevant to their future role. Third, in addition to military service (which is standard, as in the UK), they often also gain experience of diplomatic, or wider public service: at the UN, the EU, or serving in one of their missions abroad. To take the example again of Prince Frederik, he served at the Danish mission to the UN, and then worked as First Secretary at their embassy in Paris. Or take Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden: after studying Politics and History at Yale, she did internships at the UN and the Swedish embassy in Washington, followed by stints in the Swedish international development agency and the Swedish trade council, before completing their diplomatic training programme. 

It is not Prince Charles’s fault that his own training lacked the breadth or depth of his younger counterparts: his more traditional career path (focused on military service) was chosen for him. But in future, with as many female heirs apparent around Europe as male, a wider training in diplomatic and public service is likely to become more common, as a better introduction to the business of government and international relations. The changes in the laws of succession to end male primogeniture are already making themselves felt: Sweden is not the only country to have a Crown Princess – in half the monarchies of Europe the heir apparent is now female, with the others being Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain.

Nor is it Prince Charles’s fault that he has had to spend 67 years in waiting, and that he is still waiting. But it might give him pause for thought about inflicting a similarly long wait on his successors. We risk a gradual slide into a gerontocracy, because of the longevity of individual monarchs. The Queen is now 92. If she lives as long as the Queen Mother, who died aged 101, Prince Charles will be almost 80 when he becomes King. If he in turn lived to 100, Prince William would succeed to the throne at the age of 67. We may be in for a series of elderly monarchs, succeeded by heirs apparent who have spent all their adult life in waiting, only to assume the throne in old age. It may reasonably be asked whether it is kind to our monarchs to expect them to go on like this; or whether it is kind to their people to have a succession of monarchs who are all very old.

This is one issue where the monarch has a clear individual choice. No government is going to advise a monarch to abdicate because of old age; but no government is going to prevent a future monarch from doing so. For the Queen abdication is said to be unthinkable, because of the abdication crisis of 1936 and her own express, personal dedication; but for her successors it may be less taboo. If they want to look for a different model, they need look no further than the Netherlands, where the last three Queens have abdicated at around the age of 70, most recently Queen Beatrix who abdicated in 2013 at the age of 75. The last three monarchs of Luxembourg have also all abdicated; as did King Albert II of Belgium in 2013, for reasons of health, at the age of 79. In the same year Pope Benedict XVI resigned from the Papacy, also on health grounds.

What these other monarchies show is that it is possible to have an occasional abdication, or a succession of abdications, without the institution itself being threatened. But for Prince Charles abdication is probably as unthinkable as it is for the Queen. According to figures taken from the Court Circular, in 2017 he undertook 546 official engagements, topping the list, ahead of Princess Anne (541), Prince Andrew (340) and the Queen (292). Increasingly he is undertaking royal duties on behalf of the Queen, in particular overseas visits: last year he visited 16 countries. Last week he visited The Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria.

The Prince of Wales’s role has not been without controversy. On the one hand, a long-serving heir apparent is in a unique position to take a long-term view on scientific or social or cultural issues. We see this with his work in the areas of environmental sustainability and climate change, and the built environment. On the other hand, involvement in some of these issues inevitably gives rise to criticism. Whether or not one agrees with how the Prince of Wales has defined his role, he has in his own words spent his time working to make a difference. On his birthday of all days, we should salute that.

About the author

Robert Hazell is a former Director of the Constitution Unit and led its project on Accession and Coronation Oaths. The associated reports (Swearing in the New King and Inaugurating a New Reign) were published in May.