Some would say that “useless” is not a word that should be lightly employed by the nonagenarian consort of a constitutional queen; the Duke of Edinburgh does not have a role in British government and his lifelong task, which he has not always accomplished to perfection, is to repeat the performance of the House of Lords during the Napoleonic Wars when, as the Gilbert and Sullivan song from Iolanthe has it, “the House of Lords throughout the war/did nothing in particular/ And did it very well.”
Nevertheless, perhaps peeved by his son’s struggle to carve out a public role for himself as the Green Prince, the Duke of Edinburgh summoned up the spirit of Don Quixote to let fly at the windmills that, in his view are polluting the British countryside to no good purpose. They will never work he said, and “are a disgrace.” They are inefficient and cannot work without huge subsidies, and because they do not supply constant energy, traditional power plants must continue to be built to back them up.
As the Daily Telegraph notes in its story, the Duke’s frank dismissal of wind farms as absolutely useless subsidy hogs can easily be construed as an attack on government policy. As the Telegraph points out, it is the current policy of the duke’s wife’s government to throw up as many windfarms as possible.
Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, last month called opponents of the plans “curmudgeons and fault-finders” and described turbines as “elegant” and “beautiful”.
Under the British system, the Queen never intervenes in political discussions, impartially reading the program of whichever party has a majority in Parliament as the “Queen’s Speech” and never offering public criticism of a government’s policies. (She is free to speak her mind with the prime minister and it is believed that the current queen makes full use of this right.) Since Prince Philip’s outburst came in a private conversation with the head of a subsidy-supported wind farm company rather than as a public declaration, the British Constitution does not need to be awakened from its slumber.
His son the Prince of Wales has been more active; Prince Charles is known to write to cabinet ministers to share his thoughts on public questions and as heir to the throne and beneficiary of a set of interests and properties known as the Duchy of Cornwall he also has the right to speak up about legislation that affects the Duchy’s interests. While Charles is a well known advocate of shaggy organic ideas (and quack homeopathic medicines), he too draws the line at windmills. Neither Charles nor Philip will allow them to be build on land they control — much perhaps as Senator Kennedy fought to keep them away from the family compound.
In any case, windmills are the subjects of growing criticism in the UK. Some don’t like the way the 410 foot towers disrupt the views; some don’t like the way they get noisy when the wind blows hard — many turbines in Britain must now be turned off for noise reasons just when the wind is blowing hard enough to make lots of electricity.
But the real problems seem to be economic: the Telegraph claims that windmills benefit from about $750 million in subsidies every year — and that two thirds of that money goes to non-British companies. One of Prince Philip’s lifelong habits — and it has frequently gotten him into hot water — is to say out loud what many others are thinking.
With Britain slashing spending in a desperate effort to avoid the economic troubles now besetting the eurozone, the Duke of Edinburgh may once again have committed the most unpardonable of social blunders: speaking the unwelcome truth.