It was the annual Sainsbury’s charity ball last Saturday at the Natural History Museum. The night before, Sir Peter Davis, chief executive of the superstore retailer, had dinner with Prince Charles at Highgrove.
So Davis spent an evening among the ancient and preserved remains of a species that failed to adapt to its environment with catastrophic consequences. Then he went on to the Natural History Museum.
Happily, it is of no concern to us here that St James’s Palace is at war with Buckingham Palace, that there may or may not be homosexual orgies among the flunkies that serve them, or that the Prince of Wales apparently had to remind the monarch that she couldn’t both be prosecutor in a criminal trial and in possession of key defence evidence.
But, however hard we might try to ignore him, Prince Charles seems determined to invade our privacy. More accurately, he seems determined to invade the private sector. He wants to boss around those in commercial life, about which he can hardly be expected to know much from personal experience.
The Highgrove dinner can be viewed as part of this interventionist tendency. Michael Heseltine, when he was trade and industry secretary, famously promised to intervene in British industry before breakfast, lunch and dinner. Prince Charles promises to intervene at dinner.
Davis was far from alone at the Highgrove bash (or bashing, depending on where you sat). I understand Davis’s opposite number at Tesco, Sir Terry Leahy, was there, as was Tony DeNunzio, chief executive of Asda, and David Felwick, chairman of the British Retail Consortium.
Representatives of the farming industry – or farmers, as we used to call them – were also there. “The dinner was about bringing together retailers and farmers,” a spokeswoman for the Prince told the Sunday Times. The Prince’s concern for the plight of British farming is well known and he was, apparently, “very passionate” on the night.
The difficulty I have with this is in understanding what Prince Charles believes he can bring to the table. His line is that the major retailers should do more to source food lines from local British farmers and, in particular, to play a supportive role in the development of farming co-operatives.
In this, he reveals just how separated he is from the commercial world that most of the rest of us occupy. I have no idea – and don’t wish to know – whether he has a servant to hold his urine-specimen bottle or whether he travels with a score of suitcases for a weekend away, as recent allegations have it.
But I do know that he has never had to find his own accommodation or commute to work in a City office. That’s why he thinks that everyone should live in pretty, self-contained cottages, rather than intensively built apartments. And that’s why he is casually dismissive and rude about adventurous working environments, such as Sir Norman Foster’s exciting, giant “gherkin” in London’s financial district.
You may deplore Foster’s structure or (like me) think it’s fantastic, but I bet you have some idea of the practicalities of demand for modern office space in the City of London and the importance of its development, especially during an economic downturn, for the future of London as a leading financial centre.
Prince Charles opposes it as he doesn’t like it. How could he develop a more sophisticated opinion, separated as he is from the practical considerations of working life?
I’m afraid that it’s the same other-worldliness that has led to his support of alternative medicine, without any consideration for how a National Health Service may be funded to provide it. Or to opposition to genetically modified crops on shaky theological grounds, without an appreciation of the economic considerations for Western companies or Third World beneficiaries.
At one level, none of this should matter – the interventions of a post-medieval institution in a post-modern world should be the stuff of amusement rather than aggravation. But I fear that Prince Charles is of sufficiently high profile to encourage similarly naive views in more dangerous quarters.
Sainsbury’s, as it happens, was writing to its suppliers concurrently with Davis’s invitation to the Highgrove beano to ask them to find cost savings of five per cent, to be expressed in price savings for the superstore chain.
It’s unclear whether the Prince’s own green-welly operation, Duchy Originals, will have received this letter. But it’s a fair guess that Davis’s mission to shave &£700m in costs off Sainsbury’s operations by 2004 is unlikely to be blown off course by some woolly entreaties to be nice to farming co-operatives.
Davis already has his knighthood, after all. But it would be more than a shame if substantive criticism of real trading iniquities, such as the legacy of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy, which inflicts huge competitive disadvantages on British farming, were to be undermined because Prince Charles wanted to treat competitive symptoms, rather than address trading cures.
I might add that, so long as Davis & Co can source their food lines more cheaply abroad, they may have a strong vested interest in the good Prince continuing so effectively to miss the point.
George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon. His book, The Death of Spin, published by Wiley at &£16.99, is available at bookshops or at wileyeurope.com