There is a striking photograph of Prince Charles on the front page of today's Guardian, festooned with royal regalia on his 60th birthday. Very helpfully, the editors have provided a guide to the regalia for those of us who can't tell an 'aguilette denoting aide-de-camp to the Queen' from a badge denoting the 'Most Ancient and the Most Noble Order of the Thistle (Knight)'.
I was interested to see that Charles has a set of medals. Now back when I was in the Cub Scouts - the 4th Bedworth (Baptist) troop - swearing weekly oaths of allegiance to the Queen, I learned that medals were for doing something. So what has Charles done to earn these medals? It turns out that some are commemorative medals, e.g., the 'Silver Jubilee Medal, commemorating the Queen's 25 years on the throne', along with the 'Golden Jubilee Medal, commemorating the Queen's 50 years on the throne'. These aren't so much medals for doing something as for, well, just sort of being there when things happened (to someone else). Admittedly, Charles does have an 'Order of Merit' which is apparently given to those with 'great achievement in the fields of arts, learning, literature and science'. But this just seems silly. Being moderately good at water-colour painting is an achievement, to be sure, but worthy of an OOM?
My point is NOT to have a go at Charles as an individual. My point is that this photograph illustrates beautifully one of the reasons why monarchy is such a wicked institution.
Charles has spent his entire adult life trapped in the role of monarch-to-be, a role which has set severe limitations on what he can do with his life. If he tries to use his position creatively, he always runs the danger that critics like Geoffrey Wheatcroft will complain that he is not acting as a good royal should.
Absent monarchy, maybe Charles Windsor would have enjoyed a career of perhaps modest but real achievements - and, of course, even trapped within his role he has some real, significant achievements to his name. But trapped within this princely role, his freedom to really strike out and have a life of one's own is non-existent. Sure, he gets medals for being there; but I imagine he feels terribly unfulfilled. What an awful injury to human potential.