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Does Prince William calling for fighting to stop in Gaza herald a new era of royal frankness? Let’s hope so | Stephen Bates

Does Prince William calling for fighting to stop in Gaza herald a new era of royal frankness? Let’s hope so | Stephen Bates
Does Prince William calling for fighting to stop in Gaza herald a new era of royal frankness? Let’s hope so | Stephen Bates

“What did he mean by that?” the devious 19th century Austrian statesman Prince Metternich is supposed to have muttered, when he heard that his equally wily French rival Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand had just died in 1838. It’s a question also being posed after Prince William was heard yesterday calling for an end to the fighting in Gaza as soon as possible.

The words were hardly exceptionable: the prince, like every other civilised and sentient being, spoke of the terrible human cost of the conflict and the desperate need for increased humanitarian support as he visited the British Red Cross offices in London. Too many had been killed, he added, as he listened to first hand accounts directly from the charity’s staff amid the rubble at the scene.

You might think it amounted to little more than the sentiments being uttered by politicians across the House of Commons (and just as unlikely to influence the Israeli government). However, British royals are usually supposed to confine their statements to the most anodyne of utterances, so the prince’s remarks strayed perilously close to outspokenness in some palace aides’ eyes, even though what he wanted to say had been cleared with the government first and there will be a visit to a synagogue in the coming days. Nevertheless, might this start a trend?

Good if it does. The prince is right to speak out on potentially contentious issues so long as he doesn’t trespass on domestic political controversies or frighten the horses at Westminster. We got used to his grandmother for decades not saying anything remotely contentious, but the modern monarchy needs to show it does not float in a cloud of unknowing about what is happening in the world – and most royal supporters are not going to quibble with that. Only republicans seem to object to them saying anything at all, seemingly preferring them to be out of touch. It’s not as if William is suddenly going to announce his conversion to socialism.

King Charles has long had his causes, pre-eminently the environment, dating back to a time when it seemed to be an eccentric personal foible rather than the vital issue it has now become, making him look increasingly prescient rather than quaint. He and his son are more engaged with the issues affecting their subjects’ concerns than government ministers, who flit in wearing hard hats and hi-vis vests for a brief photo opportunity and flit out again as soon as the photographs have been taken.

For decades, Charles has been thoroughly engaged with the work of the Prince’s Trust, helping disadvantaged young people. William himself seems to engage more directly with those he meets on visits, too, and shows genuine personal concern. Perhaps that’s his mother’s influence.

He doesn’t always get it right of course, as he demonstrated at the Baftas the other night, telling Mia McKenna-Bruce, the star of the film How to Have Sex, that: “I think it looked like you had a lot of fun all the way through.” The film deals with rape – much less fun than the title may have suggested to him, but he did admit that he hadn’t yet seen it. A case of what his late grandfather the Duke of Edinburgh called foot-in-mouth disease. At least William is a film fan, not just turning up once a year for the Royal Film Performance. He admitted at the Baftas that he had not managed to see so many of the contenders this year, though planned to catch up.

Time will tell how genuine this generation of royals is about the social concerns of the people. Will their compassion endure? Or will it be more like William’s great-great uncle Edward VIII, who toured the desolate south Wales industrial districts in November 1936 – and famously told the unemployed and destitute miners and steelworkers that something must be done. “You may be sure that all that I can do for you I will. We certainly want better times brought to your valley,” he told people on a housing estate in Pontypool.

When he got back to London that evening, though, Edward went to dinner with the Tory MP and diarist Chips Channon, who noted: “The king was jolly, gay and full of cracks. He returned only tonight from the distressed areas and must have felt as elated as I do after two or three days in my constituency.” Channon’s constituency was Southend West.

What the Welsh miners didn’t know was that the king had already told the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, his mother and his three brothers of his intention to abdicate to marry the woman he loved. Within three weeks he had renounced the throne and left the country for a life that evinced no concern for the comfort of anyone else ever again.

  • Stephen Bates, a former Guardian correspondent, is the author of Royalty Inc: Britain’s Best-Known Brand and The Shortest History of the Crown

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