John Major's duty to his Queen: The Royal Family is being pursued without mercy. Matthew Symonds outlines the advice the Prime Minister should take to Balmoral this weekend

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The Independent Online
John Major will begin his second 'Balmoral break' this weekend - the annual visit the Prime Minister makes to see the Queen in her Scottish fastness. No doubt Mr Major will enjoy the usual round of picnics, barbecues and party games which are thought to be helpful in cementing the working relationship between the sovereign and her first minister. But it would be surprising - indeed, Mr Major would be neglectful of his duties - if he did not discuss with the Queen the possible damage done to the monarchy during this dreadful summer of revelation, allegation and fabrication concerning the younger members of the Royal Family.

It is not just a formal duty. Mr Major could bring a perspective and a frankness about events which is not available from Palace advisers, who are unlikely to go too far in telling the Queen the real extent and possible repercussions of her family's difficulties. He should put it to her that she ought to rethink the whole idea of the Royal Family and its role; that she should change the financial relationship between herself and the Treasury; and, just as important, that most of her family should be cast off from the public purse.

He should start from the truth that nothing has been written or said which reflects any discredit on the Queen herself. The only commonly canvassed criticism which might apply by implication to the Queen is that the Palace has been inept in providing advice and support for new recruits to the Royal Family (whether it would have been accepted is quite a different matter). He will also be justified in observing that nothing has happened, or even threatens to happen, which would amount to a constitutional crisis of the kind which led to the abdication of Edward VIII. Even in the unhappy and unlikely event of the heir to the throne being formally divorced from his wife, there would be a notional threat to his future position as head of the Church of England only if he were to seek to remarry.

But, that said, Mr Major should make it clear how much else there is to worry about. Royal officials who talk about things getting back to normal and the events of the summer 'blowing over' are almost certainly deluding themselves. Ten years ago media coverage of the Royal Family was largely (and pretty sickeningly) adulatory. In recent years syrup has given way to vitriol, helped by the routine vulgarities of the Duchess of York and the mild eccentricity of some of the Prince of Wales's enthusiasms. But even if gossip and malicious speculation became the hallmark of royal coverage, there were still some limits on what was written, as could be seen in the extensive but slightly tentative reporting of the Duchess of York's relationship with Steve Wyatt.

Then came Andrew Morton's book about the Princess of Wales and her marriage, which broke new ground by its intrusiveness, detail and the apparent accuracy of its central theme. With the publication of extracts from the book in the Sunday Times, the tabloids felt it was safe to declare open warfare on the Waleses' marriage. In the last few weeks readers of the Daily Mirror and the Sun have enjoyed peeping-Tom photographs of the Duchess of York and the bugging of a personal telephone call allegedly between the Princess of Wales and a male friend.

It now seems that the Royal Family will be pursued without mercy and without restraint. The blood lust of the pack will be (temporarily) satisfied only by the destruction of the heir to the throne's marriage. It is an extraordinary situation, and for the Queen and her immediate family it must be quite frightening.

What should the Prime Minister's advice to the Queen be in responding to this very difficult situation? The first thing he should convey to her is that this period of embattlement may go on indefinitely and that it has the capacity to do real harm to the monarchy. He will not have to remind the Queen that, a thousand years old or not, the monarchy is in some ways a fragile institution which has the ability either to destroy or revive itself in each generation. What Bagehot calls 'the old sacred sentiment', which is the basis of the relationship between sovereign and people, is not a mystic right to allegiance. It is absolutely conditional upon the character of the man or woman who sits upon the throne. James II lost it and had to flee the country, while Queen Anne, whose claim to the throne was legally dubious, quickly regained it. Since the long and virtuous reign of George III (who is said to be the favourite ancestor of Prince Charles), the idea that the monarchy should set a standard for decent behaviour has acquired formidable strength. When Queen Victoria agonised over the rackety life of the incorrigible Bertie, she was thinking at least as much about the future of the Crown as she was about her eldest son's immortal soul.

There is no suggestion that the Queen's own behaviour has been anything other than impeccable. But the increasing emphasis over the last 50 years on the Royal Family as opposed to the monarchy itself has created dangers. It is unreasonable to expect all the members of a large family, particularly those who have not been brought up within it, to be capable of giving moral leadership to the nation. People who have little realistic prospect of ascending to the throne, not to mention their spouses, are supposed to conduct their lives with the same dignity and discretion as the Queen herself. When they transgress, as inevitably they do, and their transgressions are luridly reported, as inevitably they now are, damage is equally inevitably done to that 'old sacred sentiment' upon which the monarchy so crucially depends.

The Prime Minister must tell the Queen that if this damage is to be limited in the future, it is vital that a greater differentiation is made between those members of the Royal Family who have or will have a constitutional role and those who have none. We are entitled to expect the highest standards from the Queen and Prince Charles, but what the others do should not concern us, however much it may shock or titillate. Unfortunately it is not enough merely to say it. Something must be seen to change - and that something is money.

The extended Royal Family which is doing such harm to the monarchy can only fully cease to be our concern when it is no longer paid out of the public purse. That means two things - the ending of all Civil List payments other than to the Queen herself (the Prince of Wales receives tax-free income from the Duchy of Cornwall estates) and the ending of the Queen's immunity from taxation on her private income.

Many of the Royal Family's problems stem from the Civil List payments. Because the payments have to be justified somehow, members of the Royal Family, whatever their inclination, are pushed into innumerable public engagements and good works. In the past these may have generated only favourable publicity, but today the juxtaposition with undermining gossip and complicated personal lives has turned them into embarrassing ordeals for those involved. The Civil List also encourages the idea that the personal life of every member of the Royal Family is public property and provides some excuse, however hypocritical, for intrusive and prurient coverage.

The 1990 Civil List Order is anyway a rather disgraceful measure, which gives its recipients automatic annual increases of 7.5 per cent (more than double the likely future rate of inflation) until the end of the century and absurdly protects the Crown from debate in Parliament which might be 'inappropriate to its dignity'. Mr Major should suggest to the Queen that the Government's declared aim of zero inflation means that the 1990 arrangements should be looked at again, at which point a severe pruning would be very much in everybody's interest.

The tax issue is much more complicated but needs to be addressed soon. Until last year few people realised that the Crown only stopped paying tax just over 50 years ago. Since that shabby deal, struck just before war broke out, became public knowledge, the tax position of the Queen has become a source of increasing public resentment. A large separation or divorce settlement for the Duchess of York made possible by the unwitting generosity of the ordinary taxpayer would not be wise in the current climate. The indications are, however, that some consideration is being given by the Palace as to how the tax problem might be resolved. Dividing what is the Queen's and what is the state's will be a difficult but perfectly practical exercise. The Prime Minister should suggest to the Queen that her financial advisers and the Inland Revenue get a move on.

The objective of the Prime Minister when he arrives at Balmoral on Saturday morning should be to persuade the Queen and Prince Charles to make themselves less vulnerable to attack by getting them to concentrate on their core constitutional duties, distancing them from lesser members of the Royal Family and generally placing them above reasonable criticism. After dinner on Saturday night he might also indicate that he would do his bit - by introducing legislation at the earliest moment to make eavesdropping on mobile telephone conversations a crime carrying deterrent penalties.

(Photograph omitted)