The jury is now out on Charles's right to succeed

As many as 41 per cent thought William should succeed, while 19 per cent didn't want the monarchy

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The monarchy is now on probation. This is the conclusion one can draw from the polls last week in the aftermath of the announcement of the forthcoming marriage between Charles Windsor and Camilla Parker Bowles. Even to the question "do you approve of Charles marrying Camilla?", 27 per cent of the respondents in one poll said that they did not.

The monarchy is now on probation. This is the conclusion one can draw from the polls last week in the aftermath of the announcement of the forthcoming marriage between Charles Windsor and Camilla Parker Bowles. Even to the question "do you approve of Charles marrying Camilla?", 27 per cent of the respondents in one poll said that they did not.

It is interesting to take the question out of the royal context and consider it as if it referred to members of one's own circle of family and friends. A 27 per cent disapproval rate of an intended marriage between two divorcees would surely be considered unusually high. Moreover the detail of the poll showed that respondents in the 18- to 24-year-old category were just as unimpressed as those aged 65 and older.

Fifty years ago one would have said that such a result measured middle-class shock when confronted by aristocratic disregard for the sanctity of marriage. But that ancient class distinction vanished a generation ago.

The truth is that Charles Windsor and Camilla Parker Bowles are thought to have behaved reprehensibly by contemporary standards. Some shrug their shoulders and say that they might as well marry; a minority is less tolerant. How will this discomfort with the Royal Family be resolved?

The question is rendered more acute by the answers given to the question, "Who would be more of an asset to the Royal Family as Charles's wife: Camilla or Diana, if she were alive?" Overwhelmingly people said Diana would have been the greater asset, with the young somewhat more enthusiastic than the old.

In other words, if we are to continue having a king and queen, then people want them to be a bit special. For what Diana turned out to have is what royalty needs today more than any other quality, empathy. Charles himself isn't able to do empathy. Being an absentee father to one's motherless children, as he has shown himself to be, is the very opposite.

The poll results are all of a piece, and they suggest that a constitutional crisis is slowly approaching. If Mrs Parker Bowles is not seen as much of an asset, then it follows that there is no great enthusiasm for her performing royal duties. A majority were in favour of her doing so, but only in the proportion 56 per cent "yes" to 40 per cent "no". But then we come to another unexpected aspect of public opinion.

"Should Mrs Parker Bowles be given the title Her Royal Highness?" What the title means according to the rules of behaviour in the presence of royalty is that we subjects are supposed to bow or to curtsy when we are introduced to such a personage. I have always found the convention ludicrous. Showing reverence for a head of state, whether in a constitutional monarchy or a republic, is very natural. But also for members of the head of state's family? At all events, 58 per cent of respondents to the poll objected to the title Her Royal Highness being conferred on Mrs Parker Bowles. Even 51 per cent of respondents over 65 years old said no.

In another poll that posed the same question, the results were just as severe: 47 per cent of respondents said Mrs Parker Bowles should not be accorded a royal title of any kind and should call herself by her present name or Mrs Windsor. What does this rejection tell us? Partly that people don't respect Mrs Parker Bowles. But it may also signal a distaste for having to bob up and down when minor royalty approaches to carry out some ceremonial duty. Antique protocol isn't doing the monarchy any favours.

Even more dynamite is contained in the answers to the question: now Charles is marrying Camilla, should he still become king? One poll says "yes" by a margin of 55 to 40 per cent. That is not an impressive majority. But a poll in The Daily Telegraph gave a more explosive result. Only 37 per cent were in favour. As many as 41 per cent thought that Charles's elder son, William, should succeed instead. And 19 per cent of the respondents didn't want to continue with a monarchy at all.

I am not surprised by this last finding. The hereditary principle is essentially a game of chance employed to select the head of state. Hitherto the nation has accepted whoever is next in line come what may. But now we seem to wish to fix the system. Prince Charles won't do, we say, so let's jump a generation to somebody about whom, as it happens, we know absolutely nothing. The absurdity of proceeding in this way is bound the strengthen the ranks of the sceptics.

When the moment comes, therefore, if public opinion is of the same mind as it is today, a very difficult situation would arise. Accession by the next in line is almost instantaneous, but Parliament can, if it chooses, stop the machinery and give itself time to think. In this there is the making of a major constitutional crisis. Curiously the marriage announcement has unexpectedly emphasised the difficulties that lie ahead. It's like a car accident. One can see that there is going to be a crash and one cannot get out the way in time.

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