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Coffee House

Why Britain needs Prince Charles

18 November 2013

3:48 PM

18 November 2013

3:48 PM

This week’s issue of Country Life magazine has been guest-edited by the Prince of Wales. As long term perspectives disappear from national debate, we should all be grateful for his presence in public life, says Ben Goldsmith.

It is hard to name an area of modern life which has not been overcome by short-term considerations. Companies sacrifice long-term growth for their quarterly financial reports, politicians are blind beyond the next election, and the attention span of rolling news channels is shorter than ever. In cricket, the deep satisfaction of a five-day Test Match is threatened by one day or even shorter match formats. Long termism speaks with a quiet voice; a voice that has been all but obliterated.

The Prince of Wales stands almost alone at the top tier of British public life in his insistence on the issues which will decide whether our grandchildren remember us with fondness or contempt. What matters in fifty years matters this year: the role of science in human life; the future of unemployed young people; the impact of architecture on our wellbeing; the wilful disregard for our planetary resource base; and the protection of a countryside which has inspired this nation for centuries.

To speak wisely and truthfully on such issues requires a disinterest that is becoming structurally impossible in our society. Politicians compete for votes, companies for profits, charities for funding, and celebrities for popularity. The Prince’s willingness to endure personal attacks speaks of his freedom to serve more critical outcomes than these.

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In his 65th year, the country would do well to humble itself before its Prince’s quiet, brilliant track record. He made his first environmental speech in 1968 – two years before Friends of the Earth was established in this country and 20 before Margaret Thatcher put climate change on the global policy map. Nearly 40 years later – at the height of the financial crisis – he convened a G20 meeting on deforestation which resulted in $6bn worth of multilateral commitments, helping to embed an 80% reduction of deforestation in the Amazon. To address long-term issues requires a long-term commitment – a valuable lesson for the rest of us.

Some environmentalists are accused of having a disregard for humanity. But human wellbeing is at the core of Prince Charles’s concern. He set up the Prince’s Trust in 1976 using money saved from his Navy pension and it has since helped 750,000 young people – of whom three quarters have moved into work, education or training. As youth unemployment again climbs the political agenda, here is an organization with a success rate that most Big Society-type social enterprises can only dream of. The Trust is completely unstuffy and meets young people where they are, exemplified by the 1980s Rock Galas and the ongoing Party in the Park concerts.

The Prince’s humanitarian efforts also seek to connect people with the natural and built environment. His architectural interventions are sometimes called regressive. But a large part of his 1984 speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects – in which he famously called the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing a ‘carbuncle’ – was given over to the then-unknown cause of disabled access. In an earlier private lunch, he challenged planners and architects to confront the issue of the fire regulations which were preventing disabled people from moving through buildings. This concern is now a given; then, he championed it almost alone. The ongoing thrust of his speech was not the pursuit of aesthetics for their own sake but of community architecture which consults with future  inhabitants, showing ‘ordinary people that their views are worth having’. Here we see the true nature of royalty – not imposition but service.

My own area of business and investment is prey to the greatest and potentially most deadly disconnect between short-term motivation and future impact. Yet here too the Prince’s long-term view is starting to have an impact.

Since its foundation in 1994, his Business Sustainability Programme at Cambridge University has been attended by members of over 1000 organizations in over 70 countries. The effect of these people multiplied across their organizations represents global impact. Every three years since 2004 a similar programme has been launched – for the insurance industry, itself more exposed to extreme weather than any other; for banks to help stop deforestation and unlock capital for clean energy projects; for investors to tackle the profound problem of investment short-termism; and for the accountants, who will, in the Prince’s words, ‘save the world’.

As he put it, we are living off the Earth’s natural capital rather than the income derived from that capital and there is no global CFO to keep us in check. Having survived the banking crisis, we sit by and watch while the biggest bank of all – nature itself – heads towards catastrophe.

It was the English theorist Thomas Hobbes who focused on monarchy as the institution most free from self-interest and thereby best able to serve the long-term interest of a nation. ‘Hell is truth seen too late,’ he wrote. The Prince of Wales has repeatedly articulated truths in time for us to act on them. If he was an investor, his foresight would have made him a legend. As it is, he has asked for nothing back. I’m a massive fan.

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