Prisoners of the fourth estate

If we want a better monarchy, we'd better stop driving the royals insane, says Melvyn Bragg
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The Independent Online
We need a Society for the Protection of Royals, if only on humanitarian grounds. The media are steadily hunting them down. Like the white rhino, they're an endangered species; and if we feel they have a place on the planet, we need to take action.

Today, in photographs, they are haunted by a common expression: desperation. What are they for? Where can they hide? What have they done to deserve these relentless telescopic lenses?

This is not the least of the growing list of reasons for the speedy provision of a drastically reduced role for the monarchy. The Crown remains as a bloated reminder of days long gone. The global suck of blood and power that swelled our Headship of State to competitive Imperial proportions has run dry. While the rest of us are trying to shake down into the real new world, the monarchy grows more and more grotesque in its blundering size and its implacable legitimising of all the indulgencies of privilege. But if the spiralling parodic nature of our un-contemporary monarchy is not guided soon to quieter shores, I can see the youngest of the royals themselves manning the barricades for republicanism - because their life has become intolerable.

The intensity of the press scrutiny must boil their brains. No one, in my view, can undergo or be trapped in such ferocious attention without going some way mad. The fact that some of them have become addicts and feed off the publicity as much as it feeds off them only compounds their miserable condition. Bad enough to be hounded: near-lunacy to play the prey.

This family, once supported by real props of society who looked after its dignity, who built high walls around its inevitable weaknesses, who gave it a specialness that found justification in a powerful section of society's understanding of itself, is now propless. The roof has caved in.

Who looks after the Royal Family now? Which class or cadre really defends it? Where has that great claque of civilian Household Cavalry gone in the Windsors' hour of need? Underground, or into retreat? The royals have never needed them more, but their supporters are scattered, regrouping only in an occasional charge into the letter columns.

The Queen Mother's 96th birthday gives us a perspective. When she and her husband were on the throne, not a contrary pip or squeak reached the public ear about any blemishes, let alone stupidities or wickedness on their part, and perhaps there was nothing to reveal. Result? Universal adulation, the nation knew where it was, the Queen Mother enjoyed the job 100 per cent, and smiles all round.

Leaks begin to come through the ceiling with the next generation. The cruel handling of the Princess Margaret-Townsend affair, the persistent gossip about the Duke of Edinburgh, the early worries over a young prince clearly being forced into a mould he did not like. Result? Unease as the decades dragged on, poor decisions about the media. And people wonder why the Queen doesn't smile except with corgis and horses.

In the following generation, all hell breaks loose. Future queen makes shock TV confession of suicide attempts, conspiracy fears (thought to be well-based), unsuitability of husband as new king, own affair with horsey blabbermouth. Future king meanwhile has confessed adultery, while questions are publicly asked about the quality of one brother's intellect and the bias of the other brother's sexuality, and a duchess becomes a pantomime dame. Result? Ridicule, exasperation, growing feeling that it is time to end the show.

But the nation laps up this new blood sport. The royals begin to panic. Even the steady Queen rushes out to do some fire-fighting and is thought to be spiteful (removing that HRH). General mess. Save the Wales takes on a whole other meaning.

But there is more to go. The next batch is being fattened up at school. Tagged by the press and television as surely as heavy prisoners on parole. Lots of lovely stories in prospect, lost virginity, first booze-up, holiday snaps, and by then of course the ante will be upped and who knows what we might want to do to them.

Sometimes it seems to me that it is all purely wanton. At other times it appears to be revenge. They have all that wealth and pomp and tradition - so let's get them.

Is there a terrible unconscious agenda among the new democratic gods of Great Britain - the fourth estate - that they want to destroy those who once had so much power; and so first, in proper Greek manner, they are driving them mad?

How can human beings be expected to stand all this? Anyone who has received even marginal attention from the press locally or nationally knows how unnerving it can be to the self, the family and friends, and to the vague feeling that there are envious enemies "somewhere out there". For most of us, this is merely a fearful fantasy. But for the royals, there is enormous interest out there, most likely enormous envy, and, given the attacks that these intrusions represent, who is to say there is not enormous unconscious enmity?

In their own way, they are as big as Hollywood stars, rock stars or soap stars, and all they have to do is be themselves. But who is that? What does it mean when their given roles are yawningly divorced from any late 20th-century reality in the Western world?

You see their stricken looks and the seized rictus of the smiles. You see the aching to "act royal" (but what is that, these days?). You see, in the sudden silly actions, the desperation of people who have no road to go down any more. The Princess of Wales will sooner or later meet a man she wants to make love to. What are the odds that it will be allowed the slightest chance to grow or prosper? The Prince of Wales similarly will want to put his new house in order - but where and how? Meanwhile, the next generation, if they have any sense, will think: why should we put up with all that?

If the UK wants a modestly positioned constitutional monarchy - which I do - then it has to treat the royals better. At the moment, we flay them around the playground in a most astonishing reversal of roles. Once, a poor boy was taken on as the young Prince's whipping boy, to be punished for his young master's errors. It seems we do the opposite. Many in the UK do not like the fact that we no longer "rule the waves" and they take it out on the last emblems of that glorious past.

It is time that the royals were treated much more as the limited individuals that they - like the rest of us - undoubtedly are. And none of us could stand that sort of public pressure. The sight of them being broken on the public wheel is sickening. They have fallen foul of the fairy-tale and become the objects not of desire but of what can seem a determined crusade to destroy their stability.

Who can advise them as they swirl helplessly around the great plug-hole of history, which has swallowed so many redundant rulers before them? Only themselves, I think. They must take the initiative and say: we will do the job, but only if you call off the hounds, and recast the crown to fit the times. It would be a right royal act. New Style. New Britain. New Monarchy.