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Sunday 21 May 2006

Charles is a good reason to keep Royal Family in slavery

"I KNOW I'm a nuisance," said Prince Charles on television last week, but he wasn't apologising. Made happy and secure for the first time in his life because of his marriage to Camilla, this notoriously thin-skinned and sometimes self-pitying man no longer gives a damn about those who say he has no right to express his opinions. He is too well schooled not to know that once he is king he will have to shut up, but until then, "I think it would be criminally negligent of me to go round this country and not actually want to do something about what I find there."

The only argument against the preservation of the British monarchy that has ever bothered me is that slavery is evil. Is it right, I've often asked myself, that people should be born into a set of circumstances from which there is no escape without public dishonour?

The Queen's shy father was devastated when his brother's abdication forced him on to the throne. Elizabeth had to accept that instead of the quiet horsey world she wanted, she would have to live her whole life in the public eye and sacrifice her family to the state. As a child, Charles wanted to be an engine driver, a sailor, a soldier or a big-game hunter, but then he realised he had to be king.

The most sensitive of his family, Charles has had a life full of hard work and commitment to his country, accompanied by self-doubt, angst and - often - abject misery, as an increasingly brutal media subjected him to relentless humiliation. He was five and his more robust sister three, when duty required their parents to undertake a six-month Commonwealth tour.

He was bullied at the Scottish Gordonstoun, a militaristic and spartan school big on cold showers and cross-country runs, yet he learned to play the cello and the trumpet, was the Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance, took the lead in Macbeth , became head boy and - despite having been required to spend two terms in Australia in his fifth year where he did 50-mile hikes - managed A levels in French and history. His first excruciating experience of the tabloids came when he was 14 and was shopped to the world press for having ordered cherry brandy in a pub.

Much of Charles's time at Cambridge was lonely, for - as at school - students avoided him lest they be accused of sycophancy. On his first day, he went into the dining hall to eat with the undergraduates, and no one would make a space for him. He never tried again, but he tried generally to blend in: I used to see him bicycling to lectures clad in suitably shabby clothes.

Charles managed a 2:2 (anthropology, archaeology and history), despite taking a term during his second year to learn Welsh at university in Aberystwyth, preparatory to being invested as Prince of Wales in an elaborate and nerve-racking ceremony that was threatened by a nationalist bombing campaign. He served in the Royal Navy for five years, learning to fly helicopters and fighter planes and command a mine-hunter; in his spare time he hunted and played competitive polo.

When I was a civil servant in the British Department of Industry in the late Seventies, I was part of a group charged with finding useful things for the Prince of Wales to do to help industry.

He wrote a speech once, which was read by my intellectually fastidious boss who sneered at it and its author. In fact it was pretty good for a novice, and I remember thinking that Charles had already acquired more accomplishments than my boss or I would clock up in 10 lifetimes.

And that was before he became a respectable watercolorist, organic gardener, architectural and planning innovator (he created a model village), with a wide range of interests including philosophy, comparative religions and complementary medicine. In fact by then, Charles had already found his own most important role when in 1976 he set up the Prince's Trust with his Navy retirement gratuity.

During the ghastly years with Diana, the press would major on her high-profile charitable activities, while mostly ignoring those of her husband.

Yet to date, as a result of his indefatigable fundraising and the efficiency, flexibility and imagination of his trust, around 500,000 disadvantaged young people have been helped to acquire skills and set up businesses.

This is a man who had to put on a brave face in public after Mountbatten, his mentor, was murdered by the IRA, after the tabloids ran with the intimate Camillagate tapes and during the many periods that the press were encouraging Diana-loving and Camilla-hating lynch mobs.

He is a credit to his heritage and training, he will be a good king and he is a living justification for keeping the royal family in slavery.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards