Would it matter if Prince Charles were gay?

We are all invited to support or condemn a man on the strength of unconfirmed gossip and anti-gay prejudice
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There have been a number of really fabulous royal headlines over the past few weeks. But my own favourite was one splashed on the front of the Daily Express. "85 per cent say Diana was murdered", the paper proclaimed, as if that settled the matter. This, I believed at the time, was the height of absurdity - a gormless pretence that the idle speculation of a self-selected group has the ability retrospectively to ordain the motivations behind an event.

It's a shoddy simulacrum of democracy indeed that is invoked to suggest that gossip and rumour could somehow be transfigured into fact and reality as long as enough people believed them. How quickly though, the absurdity has achieved new heights. Now, it seems, the entire world is being invited to speculate about rumour and gossip, even though the rumour and gossip is so insubstantial that no news organisation in the land can stand it up as a genuine story.

Even the Mail on Sunday, which ignited the situation by preparing to print the allegations of the former valet George Smith last weekend, did not plan to suggest in its pages that the allegations had substance. That is why the man who served an injunction against the paper, Michael Fawcett, was able to obtain it, unusually, on grounds of libel instead of privacy.

There has been much insinuation in the press that Mr Fawcett was able to achieve his injunction with such speed and efficiency because of his royal connections. Further, he was even able to marshal the law, for a short time at least, to protect him from even being reported as the person who had applied for the injunction.

But the odd thing is that even if the upper echelons of the legal profession did feel it important to try to suppress this gossip, the man they were attempting to protect appears not to believe that their eagerness to help is at all useful to him. Charles, through the agency of his private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, has been candid about the fact that he himself is at the centre of the allegations, and that they are not true. His former valet may have wanted to muzzle the press, but Charles appears to have been more relaxed about the whole thing. Even now, he appears to feel that it will eventually drift away.

Maybe this is because he knew that the story would emerge anyway. No paper in England and Wales has risked contempt of court by spelling it out. But even without the help of the internet, any interested person has been able to piece together the general gist from the naming of Mr Fawcett as the person who applied for the injunction, the naming of Charles as the royal at the centre of the allegations, and from the denials from his friends and press allies that he is gay or bisexual.

But maybe it is because Prince Charles is socially liberal enough to understand that these allegations are not, despite the horrified hype behind them, very dangerous at all. Perhaps he understands that nowadays only hate-driven homophobes even consider hints about gay sexual activity to be any sort of a slur.

As a republican I'm happy enough to argue why it is that Prince Charles should not be king. But I would I not consider homosexual tendencies as a bar to the throne of England. In fact, rather than considering the end to justify the means, I'd find it downright offensive if this were the private detail of a private life that brought Charles down.

I do condemn Charles for his treatment of Diana - and find it quite impressive that she is still stirring up such trouble for him. But nevertheless, the Mail on Sunday's obsessive pursuit of these allegations marks it out as a childish, repressed and vindictive publication. In the months since all this started cranking up, when Paul Burrell's trial collapsed, the newspaper's favourite photograph has been one of Mr Fawcett standing closely behind Prince Charles while shooting.

The playground innuendo involved in the repeated use of the picture is familiar - it is on the same level as the ignorant taunts of sexually uncertain schoolboys urging their chums to stand against the wall or tuck their shirts in. And like such taunts, it tells us a great deal more about the sexuality of the people pursuing the vendetta than it does about the sexuality of the people who are the vendetta's supposed victims.

And while it is true that such allegations, if true, would suggest that Prince Charles had other failings, I'm afraid that all of those are already very much in the public domain. They would tell us that he is not sexually faithful. But we know this already from his treatment of his wife, the mother of his young children. They would tell us that he does not respect the proper boundaries between himself and his staff. But we know this already because we know about how he likes to have his toothpaste squeezed for him, his wee bottle held for him, and his elaborate set of transitional objects packed for him when he travels.

These revelations I feel to be more shocking and more indicative of an unattractive and unchecked neediness than the allegation that he may as an unmarried man with a tolerant girlfriend have submitted to a sexual act with an intimate employee. Monarchists may, as is presumed from their belief in a system that demands automatic deference by reason of birth, believe that the royals are somehow more upright and admirable than the rest of us. Republicans, though, know better, and understand that such unquestioning deference towards any person invites the opposite.

Which is not to say that the Prince is all bad. Unlike many of the other members of the Royal Family, he pays his staff well, and tries to look after them. Even poor George Smith, the former employee now being used so appallingly in this frenzied attack on Charles, has been treated with sympathy by the prince.

Princess Diana - the caring, compassionate one - nipped down to the Priory while the man was being treated for alcoholism and mental health problems, and milked him, tape-recorder whirring, for anything he might know that she could use for her own ends. Charles - the cold and uncaring one - had sent him there and footed the bill for his treatment.

It is still George Smith who is the real victim in all of this, his disturbing allegation of rape by a member of the royal staff backed up by no one, just as this new allegation is. Instead of encouraging him to carry on bearing the burden of all of his troubles by himself, the newspapers who want to print what he has to say would be better off spending their money on tracking down a single person who can affirm any aspect of his version of events, than attempting to buy his affidavits.

It would be ugly indeed if there were witnesses out there who knew that there may be some truth in this man's allegations, but choose to remain silent out of deference to the Royal Household. It would be ugly, but again unsurprising. Unfair deference, the elevating of one man at the expense of others, is and will always be part of the disease of the monarchical system. But we don't need any more muck-raking to confirm that this is so.

In the meantime though, we are all invited to become implicated in the ugliness, asked to make a guess as to whether there is truth in these allegations or not, and support or condemn a man on the strength of nothing but unconfirmed gossip and anti-gay prejudice.