Leading Article: Separate lives

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The Independent Online
THE FORMAL separation of any married couple is a cause for sadness among those who know them. It is an acceptance of failure, a recognition that a relationship once invested with hope and promise has become a source of misery. Yet a separation can also bring with it a sense of relief and the possibility of a new beginning. It is that latter emotion which most of us will have felt on hearing of yesterday's announcement that the Prince and Princess of Wales have agreed to lead separate lives.

Of course there is sadness too. The fairytale wedding gave many millions of people much innocent pleasure and despite the indications of a less than fairytale marriage, many of those same people were left hurt and bewildered this summer by the revelations in Andrew Morton's poisonously intrusive but remarkably researched book. But it is because of the book, and the tidal wave of gossip and speculation which it released, that the sense of relief is so strong. If, as seemed to be the case, the Princess had given her tacit approval to Mr Morton's project then the marriage had become, by any normal yardstick, untenable.

It is difficult to imagine the strain on both Prince and Princess over the past few months as the tabloid feeding frenzy has continued unabated. When the couple went to South Korea at the beginning of November, the main objective of many of the accompanying journalists was to search for evidence of estrangement. It is likely that the awful experience of the Korean trip convinced both of them that no modus vivendi short of formal separation would allow any kind of respite from persecution.

In what are inevitably difficult circumstances, the civilised agreement reached between the Prince and Princess strives to serve both the interests of the monarchy and the individual people involved. The key to this is the understanding that neither party has any intention of seeking a divorce. It is this which ensures there will be relatively little change in the working arrangements governing their official lives and no challenge to the conventions of the constitution.

Far from being cast into the outer darkness like the disgraced Duchess of York, the Princess of Wales will remain within the Royal Family. She will attend occasions of State, carry out occasional joint engagements with her husband (although not joint tours abroad) and will be a frequent guest at Sandringham and Balmoral. In due course, there is also no reason why she should not become Queen when her husband ascends the throne. Clearly, as the mother of the second and the third in line to the succession, the Palace has the strongest possible interest in keeping the Princess within the system. Equally, the Princess must be aware of what she would stand to lose were she to decide that she wished to seek a divorce. As far as the children are concerned, they may well see more of their father than hitherto because access arrangements are likely to be formalised.

Whether this agreement will stand the test of time is unknowable. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that one or other will become unwilling to forgo the chance of remarriage. It is also uncertain what the public and the media will make of the new arrangements. If they are seen to work well and, as is often the case with couples who have agreed a separation, relations between the Prince and Princess become friendlier and more relaxed than in the recent past, there is no reason to suppose that most people will not quickly come to accept the situation. If, however, the agreement proves to be short-term or insufficiently robust to withstand continuous newspaper investigation of their private lives, then what lies ahead is the prospect of a diminished and broken-backed monarchy.

By her offer to pay taxes and to prune the Civil List, the Queen demonstrated both her awareness of public feeling and her instinct for how the institution of monarchy must evolve. It is now up to the Prince and Princess of Wales to show a similar sensitivity and commitment.