13 May 2015

Prince Charles ‘black spider’ letters released

Letters sent by Prince Charles to government departments in 2004 and 2005 have finally been released to the public after a mammoth legal battle. Here’s what we know so far.

Nicknamed the “black spider memos”, for the Prince’s unusually spiky handwriting, the letters were sent to a wide variety of government departments.

‘Too dangerous to associate with’

Writing to the then Education Secretary Charles Clarke in November 2004, Prince Charles criticises modern teaching methods and urges the creation of a teacher training institute that would address a “gap in the teaching of english and history” identified by his own Educational Summer Schools.

Describing himself as “someone with such old-fashioned views (!)”, the Prince says his Summer schools were “challenging the fashionable view that teachers should not impart bodies of knowledge, but instead act as ‘facilitators’ or ‘coaches,’ a notion which I find difficult to understand, I must admit.”

I do pray we could discuss these matters more fully before irrevocable decisions are taken Prince Charles

Asking for support for the initiative into 2005 and beyond, the Prince adds “perhaps I am now too dangerous to associate with.”

‘Poor old albatross’

The Prince wrote in October 2004 to Environment Minister Elliot Morley, wishing him “well in your endeavours” to curb illegal fishing by trying to “bring to heel the recalcitrant countries who sanction, either directly or by turning a blind eye”.

Is the Royal Navy, for instance, included in the discussions on this issue? Prince Charles

The Prince suggests the use of the Royal Navy for enforcement activity, and mentioning in particular illegal fishing of the Patagonian Toothfish, continues in a mournful vein “until that trade is stopped, there is little hope for the poor old albatross, for which I shall continue to campaign.”

He finishes saying “let us hope that between all of us who mind about sustainable fishing, we can make a difference before it is too late.”

‘Chickens will come home to roost in your own department’

In a letter to the Department of Health in 2005, Charles wrote about his concerns regarding the redevelopment of a hospital, stating that he was frustrated by the log-jam that had prevented it. He said control of hospital estates had caused him “growing anxiety”.

Charles wrote “I fear that if the estates are transferred now without proper consideration, various chickens will come home to roost in your own department in coming years as the physical and mental well-being of future communities is affected.”

Charles asked to be consulted before any further decisions are made. “I do pray we could discuss these matters more fully before irrevocable decisions are taken.”

‘Iconic importance’ of polar expedition huts

In another message to Tessa Jowell in 2005, asking about the conservation of Antarctic huts built for the first polar expeditions, Charles wrote that he was at a “loss” to understand why the restoration was considered to be an “overseas” project, due to there being British territory in the Antarctic.

“Whatever the case, and however futile my plea to you for a bit of imaginative flexibility in the interpretation of these rules, I just wanted to emphasize the iconic importance of these huts,” he writes.

Read more: Prince Charles asked: 'are you worried about these letters?'

The Prince also offers to help find wealthy individuals to help the conservation project if the government cannot find the funding.

‘Intellectually dishonest’ badger lobby

Writing to the then prime minister in February 2005, Prince Charles – himself a farmer – wades into the extremely contentious debate over whether to cull badgers to prevent the spread of TB in cattle.

The Prince tells Tony Blair “I, for one, cannot understand how the ‘badger lobby’ seem to mind not at all about the slaughter of thousands of expensive cattle, and yet object to a managed cull of an over-population of badgers – to me, this is intellectually dishonest.”

‘Buy British’

In September 2004 the Prince wrote to Tony Blair saying it would be “splendid if the government could find ways” to encourage consumers to demand British produce, as without their support British agriculture and the countryside would not survive.

I only wish that more could be done to encourage people to buy British Prince Charles

Despite acknowledging the fact that “European rules preclude the government from running a campaign to promote, solely, British produce” the Prince writes “I only wish that more could be done to encourage people to buy British”.

Inadequate resources for armed forces – again

The Prince of Wales wrote to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair warning him that the armed forces did not have adequate resources the year after Britain went to war in Iraq. He had particular concerns about problems with Britain’s surveillance capability, crucial to the operations in Iraq.

He tells Mr Blair that he is worried about delays to replacements for the Lynx aircrafts due to “significant pressure on the defence budget”.

He writes of a major advance in surveillence technology, which he has seen in action in Northern Ireland, and warns: “The aim of the Ministry of Defence and the Army Air Corps to deploy this equipment globally is, however, being frustrated by the poor performance of the existing Lynx aircraft in high temperatures.

“Despite this, the procurement of a new aircraft to replace the Lynx is subject to further delays and uncertainty due to the significant pressure on the Defence Budget. I fear that this is just one more example of where our Armed Forces are being asked to so an extremely challenging job (particularly in Iraq) without the necessary resources.”

Mr Blair wrote back saying that “replacement of Lynx and Gazelle reconnaissance and surveillance capacity will be a priority”.

The publication of the letters prompted Tory MP Zac Goldsmith to tweet “Prince Charles exposed for standing up for the environment, education, welfare of our soldiers, sustainable farming, etc. Outrageous.”

Principle of privacy

Speaking for the Prince, Clarence House had earlier said it is “disappointed the principle of privacy had not been upheld.”

On Wednesday Channel 4 News Political Correspondent Michael Crick asked Prince Charles whether he was worried about the letters, if he was continuing to write letters to ministers, and whether this may have been unconstitutional. The Prince gave no answer to the questions.

How did they come to be released?

The move to publish the letters followed a Freedom of Information Act request by the Guardian and a 10 year legal battle.

In March this year the supreme court approved their release, after it had previously been blocked by former attorney general Dominic Grieve.

'Spider letters': the legal battle for disclosure:

December 2009 Charles faces accusations of interfering in government policy after making direct contact
September 2012 Government ordered to disclose letters after journalist wins freedom of information appeal
October 2012 Attorney General Dominic Grieve vetoes disclosure
July 2013 Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge and two other high court judges rule use of veto was lawful
March 2014 Court of appeal rules attorney general's decision was unlawful
March 2015 Supreme court reject a challenge by the attorney general
13 May 2015 Secret letters published

In the past, Charles has passed comment on the environment, farming, the countryside, GM crops and complementary medicine, which has lead to frequent criticism over his meddling.

He has been particularly vocal in lobbying against the the Human Rights Act, writting “rubbish” on a response he received in 2001 from Lord Irvine who, while lord chancellor, defended the act to Charles.

Sources close to Charles have suggested in the past that he will break with tradition and make “heartfelt interventions” in national life when he becomes monarch.

The Guardian newspaper reported in November 2014 that Charles would not follow his mother’s discretion on public affairs, but instead speak his mind on issues such as the environment.

In March 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron said he was disappointed at the court’s decision, saying “this is about the principle that senior members of the Royal Family are able to express their views to government confidentially. I think most people would agree this is fair enough.”

Since the Guardian made the request to see the letters the government has changed the law, making future releases unlikely.