Giles of Rome, the great 13th century author, once noted: ‘Considered in absolute terms it would be preferable that the King be elected; but the corrupt desires of men and their manner of acting must make heredity preferable to election.’ There’s little that would dissuade him of that view today. Britain’s politics are in a worse shape than they have been for at least a generation. None of the mediocrities making up the current government seem capable of exercising authority, or of seeing past the next election cycle. In contrast, the Queen and her descendants at least seem interested in the long term, in that strangely alien concept ‘posterity’.
Her son Prince Charles is 69 years old today, and is long past winning the honour of being the eldest man to ascend the throne (William IV, at 64). Charles may well be into his ninth decade before ‘London Bridge is down’ (the code name for the death of the monarch), which is some apprenticeship, but he’s proven himself to be wise, and actually concerned with the long term. The prince has often been a controversial figure. Taking aside his marital problems, he has involved himself in politics in a way that some feel oversteps the mark. And while he has strong opinions which some may disagree with, like Winston Churchill he has the benefit of being right about the big things.
For example, the Prince has always been vocal about the alarming dangers of climate change; admittedly, that’s not an especially controversial thing to advocate, but it’s still the most important issue facing humanity, and so serious it makes all other political issues trivial in comparison.
Less fashionable has been Charles’s advocacy for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, an issue that has long been not just unfashionable and awkward but marred by western ignorance about the region. Charles’s grandmother was an Orthodox nun and Righteous of the Nations, and such is his devotion to Greek Christianity that some suspect him of being a secret convert. And it is perhaps only because Charles is so respected in the Islamic world that he could take up the role of champion of the eastern faithful, without any hint of malice.
Most praiseworthy though, because he was for so long going against received opinion, Prince Charles was right about modern architecture long before it came to be accepted that much of what was put up in the late 20th century was excrement. The prince was widely mocked as being an ignoramus, stuck in the past, but he kept to his guns because he knew that in the long term he’d be proved right.
Fashion and politics are both dictated to some extent by status signals. Some political and cultural ideas become associated with high status, and some with low, so that when someone complains about ‘political correctness gone mad’ without knowing irony they send a signal that they are at the lower end of the pecking order. Most people want to be high status and so adopt the politics and attitudes associated with the elite, just as they once adopted their accents.
In architecture, the vast majority of people prefer traditional, vernacular buildings, and indeed NIMBYism decreases considerably when they are presented with such. Traditional buildings are associated with better subjective well-being and also increase in value at a faster rate than modernist styles, indicating their popularity. And yet this style of architecture has come to be seen as low status, the equivalent of reading the Daily Express or attaching a St George’s Cross to your car. Back in 1987, psychologist David Halpern conducted an interesting survey of students to rate buildings by their attractiveness, and found that almost everyone had pretty similar tastes; all except architecture students, whose favourites were everyone else’s least favourite and vice-versa, and the longer they had been students the more this reversal was pronounced.
Now of course there is a place for every type of architecture, just as there is a place for every type of music, but the situation we had reached was as if all radio stations played nothing but experimental, atonal jazz all day, when most people would rather Beethoven and the Beatles; no doubt if you worked in music you might well rather here something eclectic than listen to a Lennon-McCartney number of the ten-thousandth time. But the fact that so many modernist architects chose to live in a traditional Georgian or Victorian home suggests that their artistic preferences are at least partly down to status marking rather genuine aesthetic choice.
Often bad ideas can remain dominant because they cost high-status people little to support them. I suspect that now the tide is turning on architecture, partly because the housing crisis means a far wider swathe of the middle class can no longer afford to live in a pretty home, and so are quite open about speaking out in favour of traditional architecture. It is why I advocate a massive expansion in Georgian-style house-building: Make Beauty Affordable Again, as the London Yes In My Back Yard group put it.
Prince Charles was way ahead of the pack on this one. True leadership entails sensing when the prevailing wisdom is misguided because of status-signalling. Our future king may not be perfect, but in many areas he has proven himself far wiser than any opinion-former who has risen up through their own guile. As Giles of Rome could have told you.