Is Britain ready for an activist king?

Robert Booth writes: On 15 September, while President Obama was meeting with his advisers in the White House and deciding how to unleash the world’s most powerful military machine on the Islamic State in Iraq, his ambassador to Britain, Matthew Barzun, was spending the day in a field in Gloucestershire, learning about nitrogen-fixing plants and the dangers of sub-clinical mastitis in cows’ udders. The reason was simple: Barzun was visiting Prince Charles’s organic Home Farm. Wearing boxfresh Hunter wellies, Barzun picked his way around some cowpats to take a close look at a field of organic red clover. He snapped a photo on his smartphone.

For the past 34 years, the farm has been one of Charles’s chief passions. It has become the agricultural embodiment of his beliefs about everything from the natural world to the globalised economy. On winter weekends, he can be found – wearing his patched-up tweed farm coat – laying some of the farm’s hedges to keep alive one of his beloved traditional farming techniques. (Charles is such an enthusiast that he hosted the National Hedgelaying Championships here in 2005.) The farm closely reflects Charles’s likes and dislikes. In one field, there is a herd of Ayrshire cattle. Charles bought them after he declared that he didn’t want yet more common “black and whites”.

That morning, the ambassador was not the only influential figure invited for a private tour of the royal farm. Alongside Barzun was Professor Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), George Ferguson, the elected mayor of Bristol, and Sir Alan Parker, the chairman of Brunswick, the public relations company that advises Tesco. They were accompanied by civil servants from Defra and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and shown round by the Prince’s friend, Patrick Holden, an organic agriculture campaigner, and Charles’s farm manager, David Wilson.

The day was organised by Holden’s Sustainable Food Trust, but the talking points faithfully echoed Charles’s view that industrialised agriculture is a big, dangerous experiment with our environment and a threat to the livelihoods of small farmers. Here was a branch of Prince Charles’s power network in action. Away from the public glare, issues that matter intensely to him were being discussed in front of some of the most powerful people in Britain. In an echo of his famous comment of 1986 that he talks to his plants – he joked more recently he actually “instructs them” – there was even a brief exchange on whether oak trees communicate with their relatives through the soil. Holden and Wilson raised a few eyebrows with some of their scientific claims, not least about the danger of antibiotics in meat. On the whole, though, the guests seemed receptive.

Over the past four decades, Charles has carved out a unique position for himself as an elite activist, tirelessly lobbying and campaigning to promote his concerns. From farming to architecture, medicine to the environment, his opinions, warnings and grumbles are always heard. He spreads his ideas through his writings and speeches, his charities and allies and, behind the scenes, in private meetings and correspondence with government ministers. His interventions matter. Peter Hain, the former cabinet minister who lobbied with Charles for NHS trials of complementary medicine, summed up his influence in this way: “He could get a hearing where all the noble, diligent lobbying of the various different associations in the complementary medicine field found it hard.” [Continue reading…]

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