Can we take him seriously?

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The Independent Online
IT IS almost as if the British state is having a nervous breakdown: the gushing out of misery and self-pity from a man once universally assumed to be the future king is a final taboo broken. Deference chokes on the spectacle. Having been invited to form a jury of his peers, few of us will ever truly feel his subjects. However he eventually titles himself, this is in some sense his abdication crisis.

Charles Windsor wants to be known and judged as a frail and suffering private individual, screwed up by his mum and dad and his schooling, so weak that he can be bullied into a loveless marriage. Emotionally, he does not want to reign; he wants to be loved. It is impossible not to feel sympathy, despite the egotistical cruelty of his current behaviour towards his estranged wife and children. (Remember Larkin: 'They fill you with the faults they had,/And add some extra, just for you.') But there is something indecent about it.

A cynic might argue that the heir's gloom, self-doubt and confused attitude to the modern world makes him a perfect emblem for his country. The Liberal prime minister Asquith, writing in 1913, said the monarch's 'personal status is an invaluable safeguard for the continuity of our national life'. One could say today that the Prince of Wales's revelations are an invaluable mirror for the discontinuity of our national life. He has clambered out of the old story and walked away.

Even so, he looks an unconvincing figurehead for a healthy country. There are plenty of reasons for optimism about these outward- looking islands, in which the majority of people are not psychologically damaged by rugby-playing bullies - despite the Prime Minister's best efforts to remedy the situation - and make rather more effort to adapt to change than Prince Charles seems to.

His most ambitious effort yet to realise the Britain he believes in has been the building of the Olde Worlde mock-community of Poundbury in Dorset, where, despite all that beautifully dressed stone, there is already conflict between the wealthier residents and the skateboarding children of their poorer neighbours.

Certainly, the Prince's decision to let it all hang out in front of Jonathan Dimbleby suggests that he has not the faintest clue about his media tormentors. You don't send the sharks away by tipping more blood into the water. And the current feeding-frenzy affects almost all of the media: it is a diversion to concentrate on the role of Rupert Murdoch and his hench-gnomes.

The republican Murdoch is no more out to overthrow the monarchy than the born-again Murdoch is out to bring Sun readers home to Jesus. He is a market-eater - nothing less, but nothing more either. His personal feelings are almost wholly irrelevant.

No, the real problem for the Royal Family is not Murdoch, but the pact between their rising generation and a publicity machine that depends upon emotional, especially sexual, revelation. This complicity began with the innocent-seeming hysteria whipped up during the Charles-and-Diana marriage, and all the coy, bashful innuendo that went with it. There always was something nasty, something drooling, in the parading of Diana.

It is easy to understand why the air-headed Princess went public, appealing to her fans like some dim rock star. It is much harder to understand why the Prince did. All one can say is that the sympathetic and respectful expression of a Dimbleby has done him far more damage than all the republican socialists in Britain.

It has drawn him into the democracy of confession. This monarchy won't 'fall'. It won't be pulled down like some hated statue. But it may be the first monarchy to be eroded into insignificance, its powerful features eaten away by the surrounding atmospheric pollution.

Politically, does this erosion matter? All the serious royal powers have long since been usurped by the semi-permanent executive that runs the political system. The so-called Royal Prerogative should more accurately be known as the Premier's Prerogative. It is significant that when constitutional writers these days examine the political significance of the monarchy, they turn quickly to the rare and brief possible involvement of the sovereign in negotiations after an inconclusive election result - the kind of job the Speaker could do just as well.

Yet the monarchy is a little bigger than its powers or its property. Prince Charles is, even now, rather more than a gloomy bloke with a lot of gear. He and his family no longer embody the state, but they provide cover for the state. Ministers are supposed to be helped in the dull and sometimes sordid business of ruling by the popularity and ancientness of the Crown.

Though the Queen lacks influence and Parliament has become pretty spineless, we are still in theory ruled by the Queen-in-Parliament, not by the ministeriate. Acts of beastliness or neglect by the ministeriate do not implicate the state; they may change the constitution - and they constantly do - but the appearance of seamless continuity is maintained. It is, you have to agree, a pretty good deal for the fellows in charge.

But the less respected the monarchy, the less useful it is as a public relations machine for the state. Expressions of ministerial alarm about the Prince's behaviour are genuine: if the Windsors cease to be taken seriously, the state appears more naked and questions of political reform become both starker and easier.

The monarchy is a force against political change or it is nothing; the Duke of Edinburgh let the side down, too, when he said in his Telegraph interview yesterday: 'We got over the Industrial Revolution and the development of an urban industrial intelligentsia reasonably easily . . . because we had a constitutional monarchy.' Urban industrial intelligentsia? If you can't read that code, you aren't trying.

So the poor Prince's blurt resonates around the Palace of Westminster, as well as Buckingham Palace. He is more than a lonely man, however much he wishes it were not so. He is a part of our national trauma, shaking off his authority just when questions of nationhood and statehood are being widely discussed. And at this point, some wiseacre always says: 'But you'd hardly want a president, would you?'

Well, I don't know. How about Alan Bennett?

(Photograph omitted)