Most of Britain could devise a better recipe for their happiness

IN Manchester, at the centre of Piccadilly, there is a statue of Queen Victoria. This is not the penny-black, bun-coiffed young Victoria, commemorated in the effigy in Glasgow's George Square. The Manchester Queen is old, the "Widow of Windsor", slumped in her throne and surveying the drizzle through heavily lidded eyes.

When I was young, the prostitutes used to stand round Victoria's plinth under their umbrellas. They were big women, and not young. They did not bother with subtleties, like asking men if they were lonely or fancied company. Stamping a cigarette out in a puddle, they would bellow: "Coom 'ere!"

Remembering this, I also remember that on the statue were engraved the words, "Let me but bear your love; I'll bear your cares". They must be Shakespeare, although I have never found the source. But they stayed with me, those words, because of their incongruity. It was not just the contrast with the sodden traffic in lust beneath them. It was the suggestion that this ancient queen, by then a hermit who seldom left her dusty palaces, was still as hungry to be loved as a youngprincess, still as eager to purchase love with royal sympathy and good works.

And now there is the Princess of Wales on the box, staring through her strange panda rings of eyeliner and saying with touching and terrible urgency that if she could but bear our love, she'd bear our cares. She no longer aspires to be Queen, only Queen of Hearts.

But melting hearts is not the same as ruling them. Millions were touched by her tale of married loneliness and neglect; few wives in the Kingdom (to say nothing of all the adjoining republics) did not see at least something of their own feelings in her confessions and complaints. Plainly, she currently bears a lot of love. But my suspicion is that not nearly so many people want her to bear their cares. Where does she fit in now, and what is her future? Is she not trying to have her Queen's Pudding and eat it at the same time? Who, in short, does she think she is?

As the famous interview rolled on, I became increasingly depressed. The damage done by her stretch of national service as a royal spouse was not just bulimia, depression or a sense of unworthiness - all now overcome. It was damage to her sense of reality. Those who feel cheated of their entitlement of love often turn to power as a substitute, and the Princess was plainly in that category. She was not going to let go - not going to be thrown out. She was going to carry on with her work as Queen of Hearts, a member of that royal team whose task - if only they understood it better - was to go fearlessly down into the people and bestow their love upon all who needed it.

But this is not on. Never mind, for a moment, that web of fantasy and invented tradition which people have the nerve to call the British Constitution. Even in their wildest dreams, it provides no special coach, no grace- and-favour apartment or crew of pages for a Queen of Hearts. The point is more cruel and final. Rejection has taken place. Like the wrong sort of kidney, Princess Diana has been rejected by the body of the House of Windsor, and there is nothing to be done about that. No doubt it speaks badly for the monarchy that somebody so lively could not be assimilated, but it is a fact.

It is not just a matter of a failed marriage, but of a deep incompatibility of tissue. Even if there were to be a reconciliation between the Waleses, this would still remain true. In a different period, with one of the older and less constricted Hanoverian generations, things might have been easier from the start. But with this generation there is no place for somebody who appears not to know her place.

Alan Watkins, on page 19, lays out her constitutional position. I am sure that he is right to say that the Princess's two wishes not to be divorced and not to become Queen are mutually exclusive under Westminster rules; if she is not divorced, she has to become Queen. And he is right - I think - to sense that what she really wants is to be mother of the next King, as William jumps over his father's head and succeeds Elizabeth II. But then comes a feeling of impatience. Who says these are the rules? What kind of law supports them?

And the answer, as in all solemn and eternal commandments of the English realm, is that people make the rules up as they go along. If we contemplate the history of the English and Scottish monarchies, the grave matter of succession has been settled in a startling variety of ways, ranging from serial child murder through kidnapping, regicide, the beheading of queens, the hacking-up of a king in a latrine cesspit, the invalidation of perfectly legal marriages, election by armed oligarchy and invitations to foreign princes to invade the country and usurp its crown. In the old Buganda kingdom, as far as I remember, there would be a ritual succession war which continued until all candidates save one were dead; the winner then had his rivals' leg sinews made into anklets. British practices have been less consistent, more pragmatic - but not much less ruthless.

So if the rules are there to be made up, why have they been made up so badly? Outside the enchanted circle of politicians, courtiers and Anglican prelates, it is not hard to see what should happen now. Most British subjects could design a recipe to make this unhappy bunch of Royals happy, without actually knocking over the monarchy in the process.

Their prescription would run a bit like this: Diana should agree to divorce, take the money and retreat to Great Ambridge Manor or somewhere. She should drop this mission to be Britain's royal ambassador of love, and instead settle for the cosy, doggy life of a sub-royal country lady. Charles, in turn, should then marry the Camilla whom he loves and who might actually make him a happy man and thereby a good king.

She could be Queen Camilla or not, as she pleased. Who cares? Think of Alan Bennett's The Madness of King George, with George III and his queen in their bedroom tenderly addressing one another as "Mr and Mrs King". If some bishops raised a fuss about the coronation of remarried divorcees, they could be threatened with the sack until they shut up. What is the point of having a state church, after all, unless you can make bishops do what you want?

But to sketch a common-sense answer is to realise that it won't be adopted. To be pragmatic and reinvent the game rules requires a rude vigour and self-confidence which the Establishment now lacks. The truth is that many of the players no longer really believe in the game. Politicians don't quite take the monarchy seriously, which means that they don't give it serious advice. Churchmen, terrified of confronting their own scepticism, fear that any change in royal convention could collapse the standing of the Church of England. They are eager to adapt to changes in general moral expectations, but they are the last people to give the monarchy a lead.

The result is pathetic. The monarchy is left alone, isolated from the broad current of social change and debate as it never has been in its centuries of existence. Few bother to defend it against the rising tide of criticism; fewer still would dare to propose its reform, even when they want it to survive.

Many people still adore the institution and even love some of its members, but who in the Establishment is prepared to bear its cares? A republic created by democratic passion is a noble thing. But a republic which is no more than the consequence of neglect, of decay brought about by the indifference of royalists, is nothing to be proud of.