Leading Article: Divorce is not the only answer

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Divorce has to be the appropriate way to resolve the embittered marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. It is, in the Britain of the mid-Nineties, nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. Almost one in two marriages ends in divorce, which means that virtually all adults have direct or indirect experience of the process. The growing acrimony between the royal couple, fought out most spectacularly in their recent television programmes, is doing no one any good: neither the couple themselves, nor their sons, nor the Royal Family nor the British public. Divorce is how an ordinary couple would handle the situation and that is how the royals should do it.

Of course, the deal is not yet done: Charles has agreed, Diana has not yet concurred. It is difficult to imagine her standing in the way of a divorce. In her now famous Panorama interview, she said she did not want a divorce but added that she awaited her husband's decision; that is now forthcoming. The only obstacles are surely the terms of any settlement. These concern money, housing, title and role.

The most difficult of these is the last. Ever since the relationship began to sour, the Royal Family has appeared grudging in its attitude towards Diana. One of the most authentic moments in the Panorama interview was when she described how the family had sought to marginalise and exclude her. That was a mistake then and it would be a mistake in the future. Much as some in the Royal Household might wish it, the Princess of Wales will not go away: she cannot be banished to outer darkness. On the contrary, she should be accorded a role appropriate to her status as the mother of the young princes and a public celebrity who enjoys immense popularity here and abroad.

It surely cannot be beyond the wit of our royal and political establishment to come up with a role for her which not only satisfies her wishes but also takes account of the popular view. Diana is a national asset, not a national liability. After Panorama, it seemed as if the will had finally been found to create such a role. Since then, there seems to have been further procrastination. Let there be no more.

In an important sense, the divorce will not only remove some of the causes of the bitterness between Charles and Diana, but also clarify the position of the monarchy. Diana will never become Queen. The messy scenario of the feuding couple continuing their warfare from the vantage point of Buckingham Palace has been banished for ever. Charles can still be King and probably will be. Yesterday he stated that it is not his intention to remarry. If he stands by that, there is no constitutional obstacle in the way of him becoming King and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Even if he subsequently changes his mind, it is likely that the Church will make the necessary changes to its canon law.

So far so good. No one, however, should imagine that the travails of the Royal Family are somehow at an end when Charles and Diana divorce. Diana will remain part of the equation, first and foremost because she is the mother of a future king. She will continue to be a public figure, however the vexed question of her future role is resolved. But of what kind? Prior to Panorama, Diana wore the mantle of the wronged and wounded wife. In that interview she moved on to new ground and assumed the role of critic of the Royal Family. She revealed the way in which she had been ostracised by the Windsors during her postnatal depression and subsequent bulimia and how, since the break-up, the "enemy" had tried to belittle her. It was not a pretty picture.

She went further. She suggested, hesitantly and tentatively, that the Royal Family needed to make itself more accessible and less isolated. In so doing she enjoined the public debate about the nature of the monarchy and its future. Who would have thought, even two years ago, that the reformers would soon welcome to their ranks the wife of the future king? It is unclear how Diana will comport herself over the next few years. She may, assisted by a benign response from the Royal Family, maintain a dignified silence. There is also another possibility. The genie is now out of the bottle. She is palpably a modern woman, influenced by feminism and sensitive to public opinion. Far from retiring into her shell, she is a woman on the move with her attitudes still evolving - a dangerous adversary of a Royal Family which simply refuses to change.

How should the Royal Family respond to this challenge from within? Certainly not by using the divorce as a means of removing her from the public scene. That simply will not work and will only provoke her ire, as well as guaranteeing her victory in any public relations battle. Generosity is the only course of action that will save the Royal Family from digging itself into an even deeper hole. At the same time, though, it must go further. When Diana suggested that the monarchy needed to make itself more open and accessible, she was speaking on behalf of most people, not least the younger generations. The underlying problem the Royal Family faces is how to modernise itself. It has barely started. Perhaps the divorce will prove the starting point. Even here the omens are not encouraging. The idea that a mother writes to her son and daughter-in-law telling them to get divorced smacks of the Fifties, not the Nineties.

Comments