Reforming the Family

The message is clear: adapt or fade away. Stephen Castle on the royal debate
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It Was the sort of gesture which, to New Labour, is becoming almost second nature. When Elton John was finally tracked down by the Treasury switchboard last Thursday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had some good news. The Inland Revenue would, he told the musician, be pleased to waive all the VAT raised on the singer's newly released version of "Candle in the Wind", giving it instead to charity.

Not for the first time the Government had caught the tide of public feeling unleashed after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and done the sensible and popular thing. And there was more to come. Another of Gordon Brown's tasks last Thursday was to meet Earl Spencer, the princess's brother, to discuss memorials to Diana. A second meeting took place with Anthony Julius, one of the trustees of the charity set up in her memory. Once again the focus of activity was on a vibrant government stepping into the breach, while Buckingham Palace was left very much in the background.

New Labour has taken full charge of the aftermath of the Princess's death. As one minister puts it: "This has been a victory for the political machine, not the old Civil Service." And that extends well beyond the issue of memorials to Diana and revenue from "Candle in the Wind".

Behind the scenes discreet discussions are taking place over what shape the British monarchy ought to take in the future, and over the lessons that - the Queen has acknowledged - it needs to learn. Reform is coming, and if the Royal Family is to recover its place in public esteem it needs to act quickly.

The engine of this change is Tony Blair, the man whose drive to modernise the British constitution won such emphatic endorsement from the Scots last week. Basking in the afterglow of that result, and the admiration of the public for his role in mourning Diana, Mr Blair seems now to be willing to tackle that most delicate of constitutional relationships: between the Crown and its subjects.

He is alive to sensitivities that he is forcing the pace on an unwilling monarch. But his instincts were made clear a week ago when, on the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme, he talked of a monarchy that "adapts and changes and will change and modernise with each generation". And his advisers will not have failed to notice a Gallup survey in the Daily Telegraph last week that underlined the need for reform. When asked whether "The monarchy and the Royal Family should continue to exist but should become more like the monarchy and royal family in Holland", 71 per cent of those polled agreed. In 1994 the figure was 54 per cent. The message to the royals is clear: adapt or fade away.

The Government is in a unique position to drive through reform. It has a massive electoral mandate and relations between No 10 and the Palace are generally good. Ironically it was the Prince of Wales, not Diana, who developed close links with the new government - so much so that Tories were beginning to cry foul. During one week in July the Prince, whose charities have long championed the plight of society's excluded, met three cabinet ministers and lunched with a fourth. One tabloid headline proclaimed: "Charles joins Labour".

For almost a decade the Prince has cultivated Labour's modernising leadership, and on many issues his ideas and the party's have converged. Tony Blair and the heir to the throne first met in June 1990. Peter Mandelson, now Minister Without Portfolio, then Labour's director of communications, had been invited to a reception at Kensington Palace. Prince Charles asked him if he could meet some leading lights on the shadow frontbench, suggesting Mr Brown, Mr Blair and John Smith. The consequent meeting, concentrating on education and training, went well.

But Diana had links too. If Mr Mandelson was identified with St James's Palace, Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's powerful press secretary, was known to be a Di fan. The phrase that Mr Blair coined so successfully on the morning of Diana's death, the "people's princess", is widely assumed to have derived from Mr Campbell. Through her high-profile support of a ban on landmines, Diana had struck up a cordial relationship with Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary. Her bond with Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, was almost sisterly according to witnesses who saw them enjoying a private joke on the sofa of Mr Cook's grand Foreign Office rooms earlier this summer.

No 10 is, then, ideally placed to take the process in the direction it wants. It can, with some sincerity, highlight the legacy of Diana. On the other hand it has channels open to Prince Charles and Buckingham Palace.

What remains in doubt is the extent of the change coming. Many believe that nothing less than a reinvention of the monarchy will suffice. The historian David Cannadine argues that there is a growing credibility gap between the imperial monarchy which the Queen inherited and the country she rules. WhileBritain has declined as a world power we have retained the trappings of an essentially Victorian monarchy. Where Disraeli coaxed Queen Victoria from her seclusion at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight back on to the public stage and promoted royal ceremonial, Mr Blair's task, 100 years on, is to demystify and scale down that inheritance.

There are few takers for radical options such as the abdication of the Queen in favour of Prince Charles, or for him to renounce his right to the succession in favour of Prince William. As Professor Cannadine puts it: "If you sign up for the monarchy you sign up for succession in this way. The mystique would be severely damaged if, when you became sufficiently unpopular, then you abdicated. You might as well elect a head of state."

Instead the battle lines are being drawn over smaller reforms. There will, of course, be resistance. On the conservative wing is the Queen's private secretary, Sir Robert Fellowes, cast by pro- gressives as the cause of many of the Palace's recent difficulties. To an extent he may be doing the bidding of the Queen, and of the Queen Mother. As one insider says: "There is a limit to what you can expect a 71-year-old and a 97- year-old to do. They do not want an Oasis monarchy, and they are concerned about throwing baby out with the bath water."

Prince Charles has, however, positioned himself as a reformer. He has encouraged debate through The Way Ahead group, comprising the Royal Family and immediate household staff, which meets twice yearly to consider the future of the monarchy. Before the election, for example, the heir to the throne made it known to senior Labour figures that he was happy with proposals on constitutional change, including devolution.

According to one well-informed source, Downing Street is already raising questions about low-level reform. According to another, the initiative is coming from St James's Palace and not No 10. Whoever is right, key questions are being posed. Should the Civil List be curtailed or even abolished? Should the right of succession be altered to give women equal claim? And should non-Anglicans be allowed to marry into the Royal Family? Many of these proposals, it is already clear, would not be opposed by Prince Charles.

Meanwhile his aides are discussingmeasures that could transform the public face, if not the constitutional position, of the head of state. In terms of symbols and the day-to-day running of the palaces everything is said to be up for grabs.

One of the difficulties is that even the reformers are unsure precisely what the public wants. There is talk of consultation with the people, perhaps of copying a government model for reform, of producing a "green paper" on proposed changes to which any interested party could respond. Matters for debate are expected to include the shape of state occasions, access to royal activities and how the public is kept informed. That almost certainly spells an end to highly defensive press arrangements; it also raises the possibility of more access to royal buildings, and of greater information about the Royal Family's financial status.

Mr Blair seems to be living up to the role of a latter-day Disraeli, driving evolutionary change. He, after all, has direct responsibility for handling constitutional issues, such as alterations to the laws of succession or to the civil list. He, too, seems to have a clearer view of what is needed in this dusty corner of the constitution. As one senior minister said last week, "People want a monarchy, but one along the lines that Diana now symbolises: glamorous but generous, one that cares about the poor, the dispossessed and the excluded. There is a lot of affection for the Queen, but people want to talk to her more and bow and scrape a little less."