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Leading Article: A favourable answer to the Camilla Question

Should we care about Camilla? It is now plain as day that she and the Prince of Wales want to get married and are running a massive public relations operation to try to influence opinion in her favour. This is not, perhaps, as important for the future of the British Constitution as yesterday's decision by the Cabinet to hold the 1999 European elections on a proportional system. If two divorcees want to marry, it is difficult to follow the train of connections which make any difference to the lives of the rest of us, whereas the lapping of the tide of fair voting around the Gothic pillars of the Palace of Westminster could presage a democratic revolution. But the two issues are connected. This is not to argue, as some Conservatives do, that the Constitution is a finely balanced and complex structure that will collapse if any part of it is tampered with. Nor is it right to argue, as republicans do, that our archaic status as "subjects" rather than "citizens" inhibits democracy, and that electing a head of state would automatically free the people from the yoke of ancient superstition.

Part of the significance of the Camilla Campaign is that it reveals the extent to which we now have a democratic monarchy. Prince Charles realises that he can only get what he wants if the British public allow him to. This is an imperfect democratisation, to be sure, with the main tests of public opinion being newspaper polls, but it is no bad thing that he is forced to take his case to the people.

If Charles is to win sympathy and support, however, he will have to go further and, to borrow from the language of the new government, offer us a "people's monarchy". He has already convened a modern-day witan to advise him on the options. The manifesto it came up with included a cut in the list of official royals, allowing daughters to succeed to the throne on the same terms as sons, and cutting the link with the Church of England. These three proposals are welcome, although only the first can be acted on while the present Queen is alive.

The issue the witan dodged was money - taxpayers' money, to be more precise. A scheme was floated by the Prince's spin doctors for him to be given a chunk of land and property from the Crown Estate. The scaled-down Royal Family could then be supported on the income it generated, rather than having to go cap-in-hand to an increasingly resentful House of Commons every 10 years. This would be unsatisfactory, simply reversing the original transfer of the Crown Estate in return for the Civil List. And it would be a step in the wrong direction, because a people's monarchy should be more, not less, accountable to the people through their elected representatives. If the monarch needs a public subsidy, the case for it should be made, regularly, in the House of Commons (and the Crown Estate belongs to the nation, not to the Royal Family as individuals).

The battle for public approval brings Prince Charles squarely into the political bear-pit. It is another measure of the Royal Family's deference to democracy that the Prince of Wales has been doing the rounds of the new government in the hope that some of the New Labour magic will rub off on him. All that old hocus-pocus about the monarch's role being to advise and warn was never very true - Stanley Baldwin had to advise Edward VIII about the state of public opinion in 1936 - but now it has been fully reversed. Because Tony Blair is regarded not only as the king of public opinion, but also as having a constitutional obligation to advise Charles what to do, the Camilla Question presents the Prime Minister with a tricky problem. Perhaps this will be one of the first issues to be put to the 5,000-strong People's Panel, when the Government sets it up.

Tricky, yes - but the outline of the advice which should be given to Charles and Camilla is simpler than it might seem at first glance. Of course they can marry, in which case she would have to be called Queen. But they would have to do so on the same basis as everyone else. It is neither possible nor desirable that the Royal Family should somehow exemplify a "better" morality than most of the rest of us can aspire to. If we accept that Tom, Dick and Harriet can split up and start new families, then we can accept it for Charles, Diana and Camilla. But their part of the deal is that they scale down their pretensions. We need a more modest monarchy, more visibly in touch with popular values, making fewer and better-justified demands on the public purse.

What sends some clerics and traditionalists running around in ever-decreasing circles is the prospect of breaking the link between church and state. Apart from noting a quaint symmetry between the birth of the Church of England in one royal divorce-and-remarriage, and its death in another four centuries later, this is not worth dwelling on. Anyone who has failed to notice that Anglicanism is in no meaningful sense the state religion is supremely unqualified to advise Charles on anything. Disestablishment will solve most of the problems surrounding the remarriage issue.

So the question of what to do with Camilla (many happy returns for yesterday, by the way) does not have much to do with the price of milk, or with jobs, education and health. But if the price of her rehabilitation is bringing the monarchy closer to the people, then it is a price worth paying. And if it is part of a thorough-going modernisation of our democracy, in which power indeed lies in accountable hands, then so much the better.