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Institutions take risks if they forget what they were created for

As with the constitutional monarchy, I continue to support the RIBA, despite its current malaise, writes Paul Finch

I was sitting next to Tony Fretton at a Royal Academy dinner when, as is customary, the Loyal Toast was proposed. Everyone round the table rose - except Tony. Toast over, we had a conversation about monarchy. Tony is a republican, and I rather admired the fact he was prepared to stick by his principles. He seemed surprised when I told him I was in favour of constitutional monarchy, and wanted to know why.

My broad answer was that under our system of checks and balances, all sorts of institutions (police, judiciary, armed services, MPs) owe a duty to the crown, not to the politician who happens to be prime minister, and certainly not to anyone in Brussels or Strasbourg. Despite the supposed advantages of systems based on written constitutions and elections for everything, they have inherent weaknesses which result in collapse under extreme conditions. An example, I suggested, was the way in which Nazi Germany created a legitimate government using French constitutional procedures in France following its World War II invasion. This would have been impossible in Britain, because the monarchy in exile could not have been forced to approve the legislation necessary to make a new government valid.

Despite the unconstitutional way in which Prince Charles has sought to exercise power (his creepy apologists fatuously claiming he is ‘just an ordinary citizen having his say’), I remain a supporter of constitutional monarchy. What I do not support is the weasel politicians who have given legal protection to the letters with which the heir to the throne regularly bombards ministers and officials. It should be made clear that even if judges offer protection for past missives, the prince should be told that in future, if he interferes politically (as opposed to asking for information), any correspondence or minutes of meetings will be made public. That should focus the royal mind.

As with the constitutional monarchy, I continue to support the RIBA, despite its current malaise. It is nevertheless independent, democratic, and the best the profession has got. While it conducts its review of governance it should focus on the key aspiration set out in its royal charter - promotion of civil architecture.

Since the idiotic and morale-sapping destruction of the old RIBA Trust, a true promoter of architecture rather than merely architects, the institute has become increasingly introverted, with occasional outbreaks of politics (eg attacking the Israeli Association of Architects), which do absolutely nothing to further architectural culture in this country.

Hearing that the institute does not even know who its trustees are is funny, but not surprising; it is all of a piece, given an organisation that cannot even find committee spaces for elected council members, thereby triggering discontent in the chamber, distrust of the (still too large) Portland Place bureaucracy, presidential criticism of his predecessors, and presidential candidates forced into navel-gazing, not the promotion of good architecture for all.

Enough gloom: let us end with a story about the Prince of Wales and a famous Egyptian architect accompanying him on a tour of the Middle East. The architect goes missing for a couple of days, and on his return the prince demands to know where he has been.

‘Sir, this is a wonderful seven-star hotel, and the staff were under the impression I was a prince. I have been given such wonderful treatment while you have been away.’

‘How dreadful of you to pretend to be a prince!’

‘Sir, you have been pretending to be an architect since 1984.’

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