1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

A princely environment

Tamsin Walker
May 15, 2015

In his "black spider memos," Prince Charles offered the British government unsolicited advice on environmental issues. As the letters go public, experts weigh in on how much conservation impact a royal can have.

A black and white albatross with chick (Photo: British Antarctic Survey)
Prince Charles was keen to protect albatrossesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The black spiders from which the contentious letters take their collective name do not refer to a species Prince Charles would like to see granted greater protection - rather, to the scribbled writing with which he opens each missive. Written between 2004 and 2005 to British politicians of the era, the correspondence takes up environmental issues including farming methods, climate and overfishing.

In a letter to Elliot Morley, who was environment minister at the time, the long-standing heir to the throne praised efforts to "bring to heel the recalcitrant counties who sanction, either directly or by turning a blind eye, pirate and illegal fishing."

Charles continued by defending the fate of the Patagonian toothfish, saying he hoped unlawful fishing of the species would be given high priority. "Until that trade is stopped, there is little hope for the poor old albatross," he wrote. He said he would continue to campaign for the birds, which become snagged on fishing boats' lines when diving for food.

And that he did. In fact, in 2006, the British government stumped up 89,000 euros ($102,000) toward protection of endangered birds.

Excerpt of text from Prince Charles' "black spider memos" (Photo: Philip Toscano/PA Wire)
"Black spider memos" refer to the prince's spindly handwritingImage: picture-alliance/empics

Unsolicited advice

In a 2005 letter to Tony Blair, Charles spoke of the Prime Minister's "remarkable leadership role" in the area of climate change, but suggested he explore ways the wider community might cut emissions. "Energy efficiency," he wrote "could make a huge difference and would engage the public in the whole subject in a way that simply focusing on the industry's role will not."

The series of 27 letters, which also refer to benefits for children of eating organically farmed food - and the need to cull the nation's badger population as a means of protecting cattle - have been at the center of a decade-long battle between Westminster and "The Guardian" newspaper. A court finally ordered publication of the exchanges in 2012.

But royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams says it was a "crazy" decision that undermines the need for candidness between a monarchy and government.

"The letters were very constructive, there was a purpose to them," he told DW, adding that they were the result of the prince's decades of environmental campaigning.

"Many of his views are now mainstream," he continued. "And, he was offering advice, not issuing instructions that had to be followed."

Critics argue that even if the letters were seemingly innocuous in tone, the fact that they were penned at all is reason for concern. Not least because there is no ruling out just how individual politicians might respond to pressure - albeit it gentle - from the royal family.

Fish out of water

Graham Smith, head of the organization Republic - which campaigns for an alternative to the British monarchy - says the Prince of Wales clearly broke the bounds of what is supposed to be his neutral role. Smith thinks that to downplay the content or voice of the letters misses the point.

Prince Charles (Photo: EPA/OLIVIER DOULIERY)
The British government tried to prevent publication of the lettersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"These environmental issues are complicated and contentious," he said in an interview with DW. "Whether we start charging taxes on energy or transport, there is going to have to be some kind of sacrifice if we're to stop destroying the planet." Since Prince Charles is not accountable, he should keep out of it, Smith opines.

Smith also disputes the claim that the prince is an opinion leader on environmental issues: "It is the hard work of scientists and environmentalists that has moved public opinion."

Effective use of soft power?

Part of the problem, according to Fitzwilliam, is that the Prince of Wales does not have a clearly defined role, and has therefore carved out for himself a somewhat "unorthodox" one.

In it, Prince Charles moves with international royals, politicians and lobbyists, picking and choosing campaigns and issues to champion. Indeed, a statement from his own press people in response to the publication of the letters stated that he had been "raising issues of public concern and trying to find practical ways to address the issues."

Patagonian toothfish after being fished (Photo: Zoological Museum/University of Copenhagen)
The Patagonian toothfish was dwindling when Charles expressed concern - figures have since improvedImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

Fitzwilliam regards the approach as successful. "When the G20 met in London in 2009, the prince had a meeting at Clarence House to raise money for the Amazon," he said. "He got every leader except Obama, who was with the Queen, to come - and he raised 6 billion pounds."

That, he concludes, was an effective use of soft power - something he believes the royals have become good at. Clearly, once his apprenticeship for the throne eventually comes to an end, Charles will have to stop his campaigning or lobbying activities. But until that moment, the so-called "Meddling Prince" is likely to continue having his say - however and whenever he wishes.

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

A satellite image shows smoke billowing from a Russian Black Sea Navy HQ after a missile strike, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Sevastopol, Crimea, September 22.
Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage