The role of "Prince of Wales" is not particularly easy to define. Aside from managing the Duchy of Cornwall, which is presumably almost completely delegated to professionals, the holder of the position seems to spend most of his time doing similar things to the monarch but (one suspects) with the same sort of feeling as the opening act for the Rolling Stones.
No Prince of Wales in history has had to wait as long to be King as Prince Charles. Perhaps with a resultant sense of frustration, Prince Charles has for some years now been writing letters on all manner of subjects to all manner of MPs and others in officialdom. In doing so he has been acting as a sort of unpaid lobbyist or semi-professional gadfly.
Immediately one sees a problem. When he becomes the monarch he will be required to be politically neutral, something his mother has almost always conscientiously observed. In turn that means Charles III will have to be seen to be politically neutral. But by writing so many letters on matters of political controversy, Prince Charles has been seen as anything but neutral or devoid of political opinions. One presumes those opinions will not disappear overnight when he becomes Charles III. Therefore, he will be somewhat compromised as monarch from the beginning.
With this in mind the Guardian newspaper made a freedom of information request to obtain a number of letters written by the Prince in 2004 and 2005. The request pertained to letters involving “advocacy” on the part of Prince Charles, defined as (i) identifying charitable need and setting up and driving forward charities to meet it, and/or (ii) the promotion of Prince Charles’ views on various issues.
In 2010 the Freedom of Information Act was amended to give the heir to the throne exemption from all future requests. This is somewhat remarkable on its face and deserves further comment at another time. Staying with the Guardian's request for now, however, the Upper Tribunal ruled in the Guardian's favour in September of this year (Evans v IC and Others (Seven Government Departments)  UKUT 313 (AAC)). Now, however, the Attorney-General has reversed that decision, in a rather surprising ruling. The Telegraph reports:
[The Attorney General] said it was in the national interest to ban publication of the letters “because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”.
Mr Grieve overturned [the Upper Tribunal's] decision, saying there was an “exceptional case” for him to use his veto to prevent the Prince’s “most deeply held and personal beliefs” becoming public
In a 10-page summary of his reasons for overturning the judges’ decision, Mr Grieve said the Prince’s letters had been “urging a particular view on ministers” but this amounted to him “educating” himself about the work of government in preparation for becoming king, making the letters exempt from freedom of information requests.
The Attorney-General's ruling may be found here. I have to say I am not convinced by his reasoning, with the greatest of respect. It is a stretch to argue that lobbying for a change in the law is "educating" the lobbyist in how government works; and if that was the objective behind his letters there were rather better ways in which the Prince could have gone about it - seeking advice from constitutional lawyers and political scientists for example.
Secondly, if disclosure of the content of the letters would indeed forfeit the Prince's political neutrality, then they should not have been written in the first place. The answer is not for them to be written and then hushed up.
Thirdly, the Attorney General maintains that there is "nothing improper" in the letters, but that seems more like a reason for, not against, publication.
The Queen gives a weekly audience to the Prime Minister, and otherwise has ad hoc contact with politicians. No doubt at these meetings she gives her opinion on various matters and, of course, the content of all such occasions remains confidential. Here is the strongest ground in Prince Charles' favour: he may simply be informally copying what the Queen does already. It is unrealistic to think that the Queen has never offered her personal views to the Prime Minister during the weekly audience.
Nevertheless, I do not think the situations are identical. For a start, I am not aware that the Queen ever sent lobbying letters to anyone before she became Queen. Secondly, the Queen has never indicated that she wishes to influence contentious political matters in a concerted fashion, as opposed simply to offering the Prime Minister the benefit of her experience of more than six decades in public life. By contrast, Prince Charles has not made secret his strong views on the environment and various other issues and therefore presents himself as much more of a political animal. In other words, it comes back to being seen to be impartial, much as justice has to be seen to be done.
The present case is not the same situation as occurred with Prince Charles' private diaries, which were the subject of legal action a few years ago, and which I have written about for my forthcoming book (and previously for the New Law Journal). The diaries were never intended to be anything other than an entertaining read for the Prince's close friends: they were certainly not an attempt to influence senior politicians. Prince Charles was therefore entitled to an expectation of privacy with regard to their contents and even to the fact of their existence.
Nor is Prince Charles in the same position as, for example, a barrister hoping to become a judge one day. Although some barristers do become known for always acting for a particular type of litigant, and they may publish strong opinions on various areas of law, all are bound in their role as barristers by strict rules of conduct and the cab-rank principle. There is no equivalent for Prince Charles. Secondly, judges give virtually all their decisions in public, so one seen as favouring his former clients would be found out quickly. Again, that does not apply to the monarch, who does much in private including the aforementioned meetings with the Prime Minister.
The reality is that if the letters were published then pressure would mount for Prince Charles to step aside and allow William to become King when the Queen dies. It might be hard for Prince Charles to accept, but the truth is that the institution of the Monarchy would probably be more popular as a result, not least because it would not have to fend off inevitable rumours and accusations concerning the letters.
UPDATE: Jack Straw has written in defence of the letters here. It seems to me that the problem stems from the fact that Prince Charles has never made secret his wish to influence areas of very contentious politics - such as human rights - and areas of science, when he is qualified in neither and which one would not expect the monarch (or monarch to be) to attempt to influence. He might offer an opinion in private but seems to be going beyond this with sustained letter-writing campaigns. Were he to confine himself to helping with charities and building bridges between business and regulators - the sort of thing that no-one much disagrees with - there would be a lot less controversy and any correspondence would rightly be treated as confidential.