The Buddha of Balmoral. Cover story, FT magazine, 7 February 2004

It is six days after the Prince of Wales’s 55th birthday, but he has not had much time to celebrate. In the past week he has visited, among other places, a prison in Lancashire, an old people’s home in Gloucestershire and a brewery in Manchester. Yesterday evening, November 19, President George Bush arrived in London for his state visit and the Prince was charged with meeting and greeting him and accompanying him to a lavish banquet at Buckingham Palace.
This afternoon, however, Charles is working for himself. He has come to speak in a converted warehouse in an edgy part of central London. In fact it is the offices of his Prince’s Foundation, the charity he set up in 1999 to inject “a return to human values” in modern architecture and design.
A sympathetic audience of civil servants, architects and town planners has come to hear him speak on one of his favourite subjects, “traditional urbanism”, the idea that people and their communities should be at the heart of urban design.
The delegates are seated around huge tables in a grand meeting hall and the atmosphere is jovial and clubbable, redolent of an awards ceremony or a fundraiser for a political campaign. Guest of honour is the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, who is called upon to speak first. After a little of his trademark banter, the deputy PM pays fulsome tribute to the Prince’s model village in Poundbury and slams its modernist critics. “I believe,” he tells the Prince, “that your contribution has raised the level of expectation of the public and the quality of architecture, design and planning. It has raised the debate and raised expectations among professionals.”
The gist of Prescott’s speech is that modest urban developments are in, whereas suburbia, “motorway cities” and the car are firmly out. And all this, he says, has already been achieved in Poundbury. Keen to appear even-handed, however, Prescott also praises Lord Norman Foster’s ultra-modernist Swiss Re building in the City of London, known as “The Gherkin”, and announces his approval for the controversial new “Shard of Glass” building at London Bridge, which, at 1,000ft, will be the highest in London.
Then it is the Prince’s turn. Standing stiffly, his narrow shoulders pushed back into a swagger, he takes the bait almost immediately. “We already have a giant gherkin,” he says, in his distinctive baritone whisper. “Now it looks as if we are going to have a giant salt cellar as well.” The Prince wonders aloud whether we are in danger of making London into “an absurdist picnic table”, full of monotonous buildings in the “genetically cloned international style”. Some people, he notes, have criticised him for being stuck in the architectural past. “But I’m beginning to think,” he says, his eyes twinkling in a wry half-smile, “that I’m a little avant-garde.” And then he shuffles awkwardly back to his seat.
The British public is now inured to the extravagant outbursts of their Prince of Wales. The media, too, has tired of tales of the dotty Prince, and has long departed for darker and more scurrilous territory. Less well understood, however, is the philosophy that lies behind Charles’s periodic diatribes and his network of foundations and trusts that now influence more and more areas of British social policy. While the tabloid press is busy accusing Charles of seducing his butler and murdering his wife, the Prince has been stealthily developing a world-view and building up his own networks to put his ideas into practice. It is about time that the rest of us sat up and took notice.
Charles’s reputation as a political activist dates from 1982, when, in the course of a speech to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the British Medical Association, he made his plea for the medical profession to take alternative medicine more seriously. His next salvo arrived in 1984, at the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects. On that occasion, Charles likened skyscrapers to a series of “glass stumps”, and, famously, compared the proposals for an extension to London’s National Gallery to “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. Once again, he was ostracised for his efforts.
But the place where he has done most to put his ideas into action is a little corner of historic Dorchester.
Two-and-a-half hours by train from Waterloo station in London, Poundbury is Charles’s own urban village, a living example of how the man groomed to be King of England would like his subjects to live. The genesis of Poundbury dates from 1987 when West Dorset County Council chose 400 acres of open farmland on the western fringes of the town for housing development. Since the land happened to be owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, the vast holding of 150,000 acres which passed into Charles’s control on his 21st birthday, the Prince saw an opportunity to reply to his growing army of critics.
Poundbury is now 10 years old. With its first phase complete, it is home to 750 people. Another 550 come here from surrounding areas to work: among others, Poundbury hosts a number of small businesses, including a chocolate factory and a publishing company. In 15 years time, it will accommodate around 5,000 people.
On the afternoon I visit, Poundbury looks unnaturally clean, a little like the film set for a period drama. Simon Conibear, the Duchy of Cornwall representative who meets me, is a genial and chivalrous man in early middle age. Over lunch in the village’s only pub, The Poet Laureate, he apologises in advance if his advocacy of the place sounds rehearsed. In the past month, he explains, in addition to the usual conveyor belt of politicians and journalists, he has hosted city delegations from Florence and Shanghai.
Poundbury was not conceived by the Prince in isolation but was inspired by a growing worldwide movement, most vividly expressed in the US, for traditional urbanism. Along with Poundbury, the other icon of traditional urbanism is a 24-year-old urban village called Seaside in Florida.
The Prince, says Conibear, can be a difficult taskmaster, but is very rewarding to work for. Although he pops in only about twice a year to check on progress, there is little doubt that this remains his personal fiefdom, and he keeps a close eye on its progress.
Many of Poundbury’s finest buildings have been designed by architect friends of the Prince as a personal favour. The pub where we have lunch is so called because the Prince named it in honour of his friend, the late Ted Hughes. Just in case the Prince happens to be passing, they keep a bottle of his favourite whisky behind the bar. Among themselves, the local taxi drivers have taken to calling the place Charlieville.
As well as a place to live, it seems, Poundbury is also a showcase, a flagship not only for the Prince’s movement for traditional urbanism but for his ability to turn his controversial ideas into a practical reality. It is nothing less than a homage to the Prince’s intellectual ambitions. Poundbury, Conibear explains as he gives me his tour of the village, “is part of a project to undo the mistakes of the last 50 years”. The state-owned council housing built after the war, he tells me as we pass the grim-looking rows of council houses which circle menacingly around his pristine new village, “made no attempt to address the public realm… they showed their backsides to it”. By contrast, the values which Poundbury seeks to inject back into public life are “self- sufficiency”, “a sense of place”, “community” and “safety”.
There can be no doubt that it suits many of its residents. So many wave benignly at Conibear as we walk around that Poundbury begins to seem like a carefully constructed artifice, a theme park laid on for the amusement of passing visitors. The village is regularly accused of pastiche, of succumbing to a twee traditionalism. Even the word “Pound-bury” seems to distil the values of an England fearful of being swamped by other cultures and determined to protect its past. But what period is it attempting to ape? Rather than anything recognisably traditional, Poundbury is an ensemble construction, a potpourri of very different architectural styles plucked from the past.
Conibear, however, is keen to downplay the significance of Poundbury’s architectural make-up. More worthy of export than its distinctive style, he reminds me more than once, is the way the village uses its land, a conscious attempt to recapture the organic form of medieval towns and villages. Residents, he tells me, sign up to a draconian code promising not to deface their roofs with satellite dishes, or to park caravans or boats anywhere in Poundbury. Houses and factories are arranged alongside one another rather than Balkanised into different zones. Narrow streets, pockmarked with humps and bends, make it impossible for cars to do more than crawl around the place. In Poundbury, as Simon Conibear bravely demonstrates, it is possible to stand in the middle of the road without any fear of getting knocked down. More than anything recognisably traditional, the village seems to represent the Prince’s hankering for the quiet life, the outer manifestation of his quest for inner peace.
After a decade, Poundbury can count itself a provisional success. A shortly-to-be-published review of the village by Oxford Brookes University will conclude that its residents are largely happy with their lot. The Prince can also congratulate himself for having won some influence on government housing policy. In his speech at the Prince’s Foundation, John Prescott announced a development of 10,000 new homes in east London that will draw on Charles’s architectural vision. Also telling is that the former chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation, David Lunts, has been head- hunted to work for John Prescott on urban policy. But it is doubtful whether Britain’s chronic lack of housing supply can be solved by handmade schemes such as Poundbury alone, without resort to more ambitious, high-technology housing developments. And for all its plaudits, the quiet, restricted life that Poundbury offers is too popular with older people and is failing to attract enough young families with children. An anniversary review of the village, recently published by the Duchy, admonishes its residents: “Keep Poundbury healthy. Have more children.”
My next encounter with the Prince is two weeks later, at a school in the impoverished London borough of Hackney. Bang on time, at 10.40 in the morning, flanked by an army of staff, he marches through the entrance of Haggerston school, tugging shyly at his cuff links and smiling complicitly at the teachers and journalists who have turned out to stare at him.
The Prince is in Hackney to publicise the work of his Prince’s Trust, the social-welfare arm of his fiefdom. Founded in 1976, the Prince’s Trust has mushroomed to become the UK’s leading charity for young people. It focuses its efforts on young people between 14 and 30 who are struggling at school or in finding long-term employment, or who are in trouble with the law. Working with blue- chip companies and with funding from the public sector, the Trust claims to have helped – by offering work experience, loans for business start-ups, etc – almost half-a-million young Britons.
The Prince’s Trust says its mission is to promote “self-realisation through challenge, self-esteem through team membership”. In his work with young people, the Prince is keen to show that working on the inner psyche is the key to achieving change in the world outside. Back in the mid-1980s, when the Prince’s zeal for raising the self-esteem of disaffected youth was at its height, he even considered lobbying Margaret Thatcher’s government to make community service compulsory for young people and was only talked out of doing so by one of his aides. A decade later, however, government had caught up. The Prince’s initiatives to promote self- esteem through community work were an influential precursor of the New Deal programme which Tony Blair made compulsory for unemployed young people shortly after he became prime minister in 1997. The Prince’s Trust now works with the government to deliver those programmes.
This morning, the Prince is in Hackney to discuss “barriers to learning” with teenage girls who are in danger of being excluded from school for their unruly behaviour. The event is also designed to win some favourable publicity for the Trust and impress its private-sector backers, some of whom have been invited along for the ride. After a brief chat with the school governors, the Prince is led into a tiny room where a group of girls is nervously awaiting the royal presence. One girl, her hands shaking, presents him with a bouquet of flowers. Before the Prince can sit down, one of his four security men, armed with a special tartan cushion, intervenes to rest it on the plastic chair.
What, the Prince wants to know, is holding the girls back from realising their potential? “Drugs, weed and drink,” says one, a little too confidently. “If you’re out of your head”, she clarifies, “you can’t focus.” The Prince listens patiently, his hands folded on the table, and is treated with all the reverence accorded to a passing pop star. Another girl plucks up the courage to fire a question back. Do you think, she says, that families need two parents? Charles shifts visibly on his cushion, as if uncertain whether to parry the question or to return an honest answer. “I think,” says the Prince after a little reflection, “that it can be helpful to have someone else around to provide a little discipline.”
The journalists present, some of whom have been complaining at being corralled into a meaningless PR stunt, suddenly prick up their ears. Seconds after the Prince and his entourage leave the room, the girl who asked the Prince a question is surrounded by journalists demanding to know what she made of the Prince and his answer. Hovering beside them is a silky TV anchorman, already coaching the girl for her first broadcast interview.
In addition to Charles’s interests in architecture and social welfare, he has another more visceral commitment. Like many among the landed classes, the Prince is keenly aware of the need for responsible stewardship of the land. Back in the 1980s, Charles was championing the idea of a “precautionary principle”, an emerging environmental approach to the risks posed by new technology. This aims to shift the burden of proving harm from the potential victims of that harm to those whose activities might end up causing the damage. In the run-up to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which saw the idea of sustainable development move into the policy-making mainstream, Charles even hosted a conference aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia at which delegates thrashed out their differences before setting off for Rio.
More recently, the Prince has lent his authority to campaigns against genetically modified foods. “I personally have no wish to eat anything produced by genetic manipulation,” he rather sniffily told readers of the Daily Telegraph in 1998, “nor do I knowingly offer this sort of produce to my family or guests.” He has, however, not shrunk from putting his money where his mouth is. Beginning in 1986, the Prince used his control of the Duchy of Cornwall to farm organic produce – a decision which provoked a degree of eye-rolling among his advisers.
Twenty years after the Prince started out on his environment journey, it is instructive to see just how far he has travelled. The fact that he was called upon to deliver the Reith Lectures in the year 2000 – when he spoke about the environment – was as good a sign as any that the Prince’s views had moved into the mainstream. Likewise, the precautionary principle has moved well beyond its original environmental remit and has been codified within English and European law. In retrospect, too, the Prince’s decision to take his farm organic looks much less eccentric. As the market for organic foods has burgeoned, the Prince’s Duchy Originals brand has become a household name. It now offers over 50 different product lines and boasts a turnover of Dollars 14m a year.
So who are the intellectual courtiers who have guided the Prince’s ventures? A good place to begin untangling the intellectual threads that bind Charles’s work, says his friend Jonathan Porritt, is to examine his peculiar upbringing. Porritt, the veteran environmental campaigner and former director of Friends of the Earth, draws connections between a childhood spent walking in the lush and lonely grounds of Balmoral and Charles’s subsequent voyage of spiritual discovery. Likewise, in his 1994 biography of the Prince, Jonathan Dimbleby paints a picture of a slight, precarious boy, plagued by a lack of self-esteem and hampered by “a debilitating reticence”. At school, he says, the young Prince found it hard to focus for long on the same subject, his attention readily diverted by faraway thoughts.
Whatever the reasons, the young Charles turned rapidly inward in search of meaning. His interest in spirituality began in earnest in the early 1970s and led him to the study of Eastern mysticism. Encouraging him in all this was his youthful mentor, the writer and adventurer Laurens van der Post, who purportedly advised the young Charles that the way to truth and understanding lay inside rather than in the external world.
David Lorimer, the author of a new book, Radical Prince: The Practical Vision of the Prince of Wales, is a loyal and eloquent interpreter of the Prince’s work and his underlying worldview. While Charles did not publicly associate himself with Lorimer’s book, he did meet the author while it was being written. The book, we can assume, comes with the approval of the Prince. The best way to characterise the Prince, Lorimer argues, is as a student of the “perennial philosophy”, an eclectic school of thought which puts a premium on the inner, mystical aspects of religion over any external calling. “We are told constantly that we have to live in ‘the real world’,” the Prince has said, “but ‘the real world’ is within us.” In 1990, he even established the Temenos Academy, dedicated to teaching the various ideas of perennial philosophy. Next year, its annual guest lecturer will be the Dalai Lama.
The idea that our inner selves need greater recognition and our lives need new sources of meaning runs deep in Charles’s work. In his 1982 speech to the British Medical Association, for example, the Prince’s argument for complementary medicine amounted to a call to treat the inner patient as well as the outer manifestations of disease. He has described his challenge as one of making architecture into something through which we can “experience a sense of belonging and meaning within a rapidly changing world”. According to Porritt, Charles’s spirituality is eclectic but coherent. It combines, he says, “a strong Christian core with definite Buddhist overtones”. Comb through twenty years of Charles’s speeches, however, and there is little mention of the Christian God. When Charles talks about holiness and reverence, he refers to our relationship not with God but with the earth and the natural world. He has even claimed that the love which he puts into his garden is an act of worship. With his unabashed mysticism, his ideas about harmony and balance and his focus on the inner aspects of spirituality, his belief system seems closer to Buddhism than to church-going, Pauline Christianity. It is a position which seems to sit awkwardly with his designated role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
For all his contemplative and otherworldly nature, however, the Prince is also a consummate networker. Ever since his inner self began to seek outward expression, the Prince has been busy establishing an intellectual court and a legion of charitable foundations with which to get his message into the public domain. He has proved more adept than other royals – a notoriously insular bunch – at bringing in advisers from outside the royal circle, and is keenly aware that the royalty needs allies if it is to survive and prosper. He is also a master of cross-fertilising ideas across his organisations. On a walk around Poundbury, for example, the visitor cannot fail to notice the newly appointed building devoted to “excellence in complementary medicine”, or that the Duchy Originals food range takes pride of place in the village shop.
Leon Krier, an urban planner and architect from Luxembourg with strongly traditionalist views, remembers being head-hunted by the Prince after Charles attended an exhibition of his in London. With his shock of wayward hair and his middle-European pronunciation, Krier was an unusual choice for the job of master planner of Poundbury. He admits to being greatly in the Prince’s debt. “The fact that he espoused those ideas and was prepared to act as a figurehead has made a huge difference,” he says. “A movement (traditional urbanism) which only really existed in the US has, thanks to the Prince, won an international audience.”
Sir Crispin Tickell, a former British ambassador to the UN and longtime environmental campaigner, met Charles at a conference in the late 1980s and subsequently found himself invited to Highgrove. The Prince, according to Tickell, “did not have any original thoughts, but rather picked up the general atmosphere. His chief skill is as a networker, getting together the people involved and using his clout at the Duchy to put something into practice.” Jolyon Connell, editorial director of the current affairs magazine The Week, met the Prince through mutual friends and sees him regularly on a social basis. The Prince, he says, “consults more widely than is public knowledge. He meets many people privately, and not only those with the same opinion. But he has to be discreet.”
And then there is the Prince’s personal hobby, as an inveterate letter-writer to government. Recently released government documents show that, over the past 30 years, the Prince has been bombarding ministers with anguished scribbles on everything from Tibet to the plight of Atlantic salmon. Annoyance at the Prince’s regular missives reached a crescendo in September 2002, when some of the letters from “disgusted of Highgrove” were reportedly leaked to the press by irritated ministerial aides.
The Prince has so many tools for influencing public policy at his disposal that Porritt goes as far as to characterise him as “a one- man NGO”. His analogy only fails because, unlike most non- governmental organisations, Charles’s interventions are not bounded by discipline or specialism. More than a simple lobbying organisation, Charles’s enviable network acts as a kind of mini civil service or a shadow government, influencing debates across a wide variety of sectors.
When it comes to getting to the core of what Charles believes in, the 21st Prince of Wales is a royal enigma. A staunch traditionalist who worries about declining educational standards, he is also a radical campaigner on behalf of the environment. He sees himself as the scourge of vested professional interests, while the institution he represents is perhaps the most entrenched interest of all. But it remains to be seen whether Charles’s views stem from a single and coherent ideology, or whether he is simply an intellectual dilettante with too much time on his hands. Also questionable is whether his interventions amount to real and meaningful solutions to social problems.
It would be easy to cast Charles as just a grumpy old man. When his relationship with the Princess of Wales began to collapse, the British press found it easy to cast Charles as the starchy conservative, as opposed to Diana, the great empathiser and the People’s Princess. And, sometimes, the Prince is content to be cast in this reactionary role. In the most recent statement of his mission, written for the theological magazine, Temenos Academy Review, Charles writes: “Ever since I witnessed, as a teenager in the 1960s, the ever more frenzied dismemberment of what was left of the traditional framework of our existence – even to the excited pronouncement that ‘God is dead’ – I have dedicated my life to finding ways of trying to bring back the ‘baby’ that was inevitably thrown out with the ‘bathwater’.”
There is, however, a very different interpretation of Charles’s career, one which casts him as precisely a product of the 1960s. Just like the Beatles, after all, the young Charles travelled to Asia as a young man and was profoundly influenced by Eastern religions. Like the hippies and environmentalists, the Prince had read and raved about Small is Beautiful, the seminal environmental tract by E.F. Schumacher. In 1973, he even met Schumacher at Buckingham Palace. Rather than simply a traditionalist, Charles is the baby boomer par excellence, a spiritual and political seeker who has yet to find what he is looking for.
The Prince’s intellectual friends are keen to resist placing him on the political spectrum. Sir Crispin Tickell, for example, says that “he simply doesn’t fit into any of the obvious boxes”. But to label the Prince as above politics is surely disingenuous. While his world-view is difficult to shoehorn into the politics of left or right, the issues which he is addressing are the most deeply contested of the age. In recent years, the Prince has generated a great deal of publicity surrounding his role and relationship to politics. His regular letter-writing to ministers has made him equally unpopular with Tory and New Labour governments. But the ideas that Charles champions – sustainable development, the need for a precautionary principle, the need for partnerships between the public and the private sector, for greater corporate social responsibility and for joined-up, holistic solutions to social problems – seem better suited to New Labour than to previous Tory administrations. New Labour, however, is hardly radical enough for the Prince. Were it not for his privileged position and his passionate enthusiasm for hunting and shooting, this political activist might even have been welcomed as a figurehead by the anti- globalisation protesters in Seattle or Genoa.
David Lorimer believes that the Prince is both a radical and a conservative. But perhaps it is better to see his work as a highly successful attempt to update British conservatism. The inner self, at least as identified by Charles, is humble, fragile and resistant to social change. This is conservatism with a small ‘c’, a kind of conservatism that shares a great deal with the activists in the anti-globalisation movement. Charles has often been accused of a patrician hauteur but, at least in its public speeches, he allows himself generous helpings of populism. There is no doubt that his exotic spiritualism taps into a broader yearning for an antidote to the materialism and individualism of modern life.
Other moves are afoot to publicise the Prince’s work and improve his public image. A former chief of the Prince’s Trust, Sir Thomas Shebbeare, has recently been appointed to a role co-ordinating Charles’s various foundations, to ensure that they speak with a single voice. Likewise, the Prince’s suspicion of professional expertise chimes with a public whose mistrust of experts is at an all-time high. “People used to think Charles was cranky,” says Jolyon Connell, “but he has a sound instinct for the issues which worry people. On many of the issues which he has championed, the Prince was well ahead of the game.” Leon Krier agrees with that. The Prince, he says, “takes enormous risks, and does so because he can afford to be less short-term in his thinking. He is slowly building a new legitimacy for the royalty.”
For centuries, the British royalty has patronised charities. The nature of Charles’s patronage, however, is rather different. The Prince is fond of expressing his strong views across a wide variety of issues. Without any clear job description, he has used his resources, his influence and his energy to further his causes with zeal. In his position as first heir to the throne, he is entitled to do so. When Charles succeeds to the throne, however, precedent suggests that he will have to be much more careful about what he says. King Charles could continue with his charity work in the Prince’s Trust, says constitutional expert and professor of government at Oxford, Vernon Bogdanor. But he would have to tone down his more partisan interventions in public debate.
The role of the British monarchy, however, is itself in a state of flux. Whereas most European monarchies are now largely ceremonial in their nature, the House of Windsor is still invested with real powers of royal prerogative – the ability to appoint a prime minister from within a hung parliament, for example. In order to justify the exercise of those powers, the monarchy needs a raison d’etre. In a secular age, the idea that it exercises power by divine right is not, of course, tenable. The mystique of divine right has evaporated and cannot be put back in the box. Without it, to borrow one of Charles’s own metaphors, the monarchy is in danger of becoming a carbuncle on the face of a modern, democratic constitution.
In this light, Charles’s attempt to overcome his lifetime existential crisis – his entrapment in a role which he seems to realise has outer form but lacks inner substance, his casting around for renewed meaning and purpose – might be seen as a personal mirror on the faltering steps that the monarchy is taking to adapt itself to the 21st century. The royal family has traditionally sought to associate itself with inherited concepts of service, sacrifice, loyalty, duty and responsibility. But, says the monarchist and theologian Ian Bradley in his book God Save the Queen, it is now beginning to embody a new set of regal values: “healing, wholeness, openness, tolerance and vulnerability”. The monarchy, he argues, “is particularly well-placed to lead the recovery of our lost metaphysical imagination and the resacralisation of our secularised society”. How better to interpret Charles’s work than as a sustained attempt to clothe the customs and tradition which he has inherited with new meaning and reconnect with his putative subjects? In his own austere way, the Prince has been striving to invent a new monarchical rhetoric, to update monarchical values in time for his accession to the throne.
The Queen is now 77 years old, and cannot go on for ever. After 10 years sitting out his family problems, there are signs that the Prince is preparing to go on the offensive in pursuit of his prize. But are we ready for a western Buddhist sitting cross-legged on a makeshift throne? Can we really look up to a King who reveres nothing more than the soil? It might seem fanciful but, like the Prince’s once-reviled bandwagons, the truth is he is likely to get there in the end.