Leading Article: A prince of indiscretion

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'THE MONARCHY is very strong and will remain part of British life for many years to come.' So said John Major yesterday. When the Prime Minister finds it necessary to make supposedly reassuring remarks of this nature, it is clear that the ground is shifting under the Royal Family in a manner few would have predicted less than a decade ago.

What happened this weekend, with the publication in the Sunday Times of the first set of extracts from the authorised biography of the Prince of Wales, is one more episode in the long, largely self-inflicted agony of the House of Windsor. But it is by far the most serious to date.

Of course Andrew Morton's earlier biography of the Princess of Wales, apparently written with the tacit approval of the Princess, disclosed a similar lack of judgement and taste. Rock stars show greater reticence about washing their dirty linen in public than the Prince and Princess have done.

But the Princess is still a relatively inexperienced young woman, and one who was, we now learn, party to what was essentially a marriage of convenience at an early age. Her media indiscretions are just about excusable. The indiscretions and misjudgements of her husband, the middle-aged heir to the throne, are another matter.

The extracts from Jonathan Dimbleby's book show the Prince to have been a child brought up in sad and cold circumstances, a long, long way from the corgis and happy families guff that passed for court reporting in the Fifties and Sixties. They depict Prince Charles not so much maturing as growing into an unhappy, insecure, somewhat neurotic and self-pitying young man. Still worse, they suggest that the Prince of Wales has reached his middle years without knowing how to restrain these negative impulses. Having rendered possible (to put it as kindly as possible) the publication of Mr Dimbleby's damaging work, it is reasonable to ask: to what error of judgement will the heir apparent aspire next?

This raises questions about Prince Charles's ability to fulfil the constitutional duties of the monarch when, and if, his time comes. These duties, though residual, are of importance. Consider, as one example, the burden that would fall on the monarch in the case of a bitterly contested election followed by a hung parliament.

It is no answer to say that the future King Charles would have access to advice and guidance from the best informed and most sophisticated minds in the land. As Prince of Wales, he can already command advice of this calibre.

It seems he does not seek it, or he does not follow it. The best immediate advice to the Prince and to the Princess is that they should proceed as swiftly as possible to terminate their marriage. It is possible that, freed from this wretched relationship, Prince Charles will re-establish his credibility. If he cannot, it will be his duty to face the question of whether he should now remove himself from the line of succession.