FOR the first 45 years of her reign, the Queen was treated with great respect - sometimes, it seemed, with too much respect. When, in the late 1950s, John Grigg (then Lord Altrincham) tentatively proposed some modest reforms of the monarchy, he caused vast outrage in the press and was even physically assaulted in St James's Street. His proposals were interpreted, quite unfairly, as a low personal attack on a national figurehead who could not answer back.

Three decades later, when scandal engulfed her family, and all sorts of understandable questions were raised about the future of the monarchy, the Queen herself remained relatively untouched by criticism. Her popularity declined a bit in the opinion polls, and pressure was brought on her to pay some taxes, but she was mostly regarded as an injured parent and an innocent victim of a wayward younger generation. The feeling survived that she did her job as a constitutional monarch with all the reticence, dignity and probity for which she had been trained, and that nobody could decently ask her for more.

All that changed last year with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Until that moment, the British people had had two monarchs - the queen of their hearts and the Queen of their country. And when they lost the former, whom they adored, they rose in their grief against the latter for not adoring their heroine enough. This, in turn, liberated the popular press from a long, and for them doubtless frustrating, taboo against writing rude things about the Queen; and suddenly it was open season on her.

For refusing, as she had always believed was expected of her, to display her personal feelings in public, and for insisting on privacy for her bereaved grandsons, she earned some alarming opinion polls (in one of them, 72 per cent of people found her "out of touch") and, among other brickbats, a leading article in the Sun, which said: "There has been no expression of sorrow from the Queen on behalf of the nation. Not one word has come from a royal lip, not one tear has been shed in public from a royal eye." Here was a brand-new expectation of a British monarch - familiar only in America where the people have long demanded of their President that, in emotional situations, he should sob "on behalf of the nation".

It must have been very hard for the Queen, at 72, to re-learn her role and become "in touch"; but she has done her very best, even if sometimes at cost to her dignity (as when she got stuck in her Rolls-Royce in a McDonald's drive-in). And since her efforts at "modernisation" have not gone unappreciated by the British public, they may also be deemed a success.

There are only two problems. One is that it has put the Queen at the mercy of Tony Blair, whose moist eyes and quivering lip on the day of the death of "the people's princess" were everywhere contrasted favourably with her own restraint. The other is that the popular press, having established its right to criticise her, finds that it cannot break the habit.

More than any prime minister before him (except, perhaps, Stanley Baldwin at the time of the Abdication), Tony Blair seems to have the monarchy's fate in his hands. The Queen is doubtless grateful to him for introducing her to the world of focus groups and photo-opportunities, and for giving her one of his own communications experts, Simon Lewis, as her personal public relations strategist. But the Queen's de- pendence on Blairite methods of courting popularity has the demeaning effect of making it appear that she reigns by courtesy of the Government and must do as it says. She is not allowed a new Royal Yacht, but is asked to have a larger private plane than she needs because Mr Blair wants to ride in it, too.

Meanwhile, the press feels free to subject her every action to crude analysis. Take her friendly little gesture in Malaysia last week when she signed a football for a Manchester United fan. The Sun welcomed this and christened her the "People's Queen" because she was "following Princess Diana's example". But its columnist Jane Moore said that calling it "the common touch" was "ludicrous" when the Queen still cost the taxpayer so much money; and the Daily Mail ran a front-page headline saying: "Is This A Common Touch Too Far?" Meanwhile, the Mirror asked "Is Ma'am Becoming Too Matey?" and urged her in a leading article: "Don't give up too many of the old traditions, ma'am."

As the Queen struggles with her post-Diana predicament, such comments are not only futile and frivolous: they are cruel. The Queen must often wish she could just disappear from view. She may be one of the few people in Britain who would be pleased to see her face vanish from our banknotes.

Comments