Whatever you’re doing at 3pm today, stop it immediately.
Get under the nearest table, reach for a bottle of whiskey, and close your eyes. When the third chime of the clock rings the sky is going to fall down.
The cause? The publication of 27 letters written by HRH Prince Charles. Yes, that’s right. After a gargantuan 10 year battle the scrawly handwritten letters sent by the heir to the throne to government ministers are going to be made public.
Clearly the world isn’t going to end but based on the government’s reactions to the suggestion that the letters ever see the light of day it wouldn’t be surprising if there were a couple of officials hidden away clutching a bottle of the scotch whiskey (probably from the government’s wine cellar).
What the saga has reiterated is the lengths that the establishment will go to in a bid to preserve secrecy and protect its reputation.
Not being content with costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds to get as far as the Court of Appeal it persisted with a lost cause and took the matter to the highest court in the land. Then lost again. A detailed background of the case can be found here.
It’s important to remember that this fight is over a set of letters. 27 handwritten letters from a man who was born into the highest echelons of a hierarchical establishment. Arguments of privacy were put forward but the crux of the issue comes down to one man’s perceived levels of privacy. And it isn’t your ordinary run-of-the mill bloke, it is the man who is likely to become King. His letters go straight to the top of government ministers’ in-trays, he isn’t waiting for a template response with the rest of us plebs.
What the government ministers (and the lawyers at their behest) have fought to keep a secret, on Charles’s behalf, isn’t going to put the country at danger nor will they contain any top-secret details. They won’t be the Prince’s sensitive personal information, and they aren’t about the process of him ascending to the throne. Previous leaks have shown that letters coming from Charles’ staff include issues surrounding planning applications. The only damage will be to his reputation.
The public should have a right to know what issues he is lobbying on and then be able to judge if they want a monarch that will continue to push for his own vested interests once he takes up the highest and most ceremonial position in the land. The public interest for this is overwhelming and it was fortunately recognised by the Supreme Court judges who said that a government minister couldn’t override the law because he disagreed with it.
Huge credit goes to the Guardian for their decision to pursue the letters and fight the cause to see them published. Only the resources of a large media organisation, or a very wealthy private individual, could have pursued the battle for as long as the paper did.
But the other winners here, and arguably the most important ones, are Freedom of Information, open government and democracy. Each of these are by no means perfect but they have significantly improved within the last decade and publications like this help to move them on further.
If the decision by the Supreme Court had gone the other way it would have been a profound insult to the democracy of the UK. A system where a government minister could override the law for the benefit of a powerful individual isn’t one that belongs in an age of the officials trying to be open and publish more information than ever.
Nevertheless, it still remains that the government changed the laws to block any of Charles’ future letters from being disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. Letters like these will not be able to be published again (unless they contain environmental information).
When the sky doesn’t collapse and the world doesn’t end at 3pm maybe those who block the publication of this sort of information and change the laws to suit those who are already in power will begin to change their minds. They will hopefully see that giving people the power to get access to information and make their own informed choices makes a democracy stronger than one where the public’s perception is filtered.