The end of the line for the Windsors?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Yesterday the Prime Minister was at Balmoral talking about what the Queen should do now. Earl Spencer's devastating attack on the Royal Family was still ringing in their ears, along with that wave of applause that swept through the crowds and, astonishingly, into Westminster Abbey itself. What now?

We cannot know yet what the fallout of this bizarre week will be. One MORI poll published over the weekend showed that 54 per cent of Britons think Prince Charles should now step aside and make way for Prince William as the next king. And only 30 per cent think we will still have a monarchy in 50 years time. The cloying, saccharine coverage of the funeral on Saturday, especially from the BBC, missed the real mood of the times. Everything difficult about Diana's life, even her divorce, was massaged away in a sea of sugar. Yet those were the very things that made her life seem so poignant to so many.

You might say that is what funerals are all about. But the broadcasters, as journalists, should not have set aside all their instincts to tell the truth, in the service of the Palace. When the BBC, for instance, spoke of Diana being laid to rest in the scenes of her happy "carefree" childhood, you began to wonder who and what the propaganda was for. It is certainly not how Diana described her early life. She was, after all, the supreme royal truth-teller. How could the commentators surmise so glibly the Queen's imagined grief - when we know the Queen, in exasperation, called her "This impossible girl!"?

The whole country was not weeping. Not even all the crowds, though the cameras sought out the tears of the genuinely grief-stricken. A terrible sadness for the brutal death of an enchantingly human woman in a car with her most unsuitable playboy lover does not fittingly transform itself into this unctuous twaddle. Having been out in the crowds, I found that among many there was simply the desire to be present at an extraordinary occasion, to be part of the scene, to bring children so they could tell their grandchildren they were there. At times there was almost a party atmosphere - certainly plenty of cans of beer.

Any funeral grasps at the heart. The awful sight of any coffin containing a young beautiful body shocks and grieves us. A natural protest rises up within us against the monstrousness of death itself, along with unbearable pity for any bereft children left behind. Feelings were raw during the week, the outpourings on the streets often real enough, but what they really mean remains to be seen. Will many feel some revulsion that they have been manipulated into mass hysteria by myths, icons and symbols cynically manufactured by the press?

Now the Palace and the politicians will be planning how to step back and calm the fever. Attention will turn to their image, their style and, most of all, to their dealings with the press. Can royalty survive this foetid fascination? Certainly a privacy law could stem some of the worst excesses of the long-distance lens. It could be done, if the politicians were willing. Yet fear of the power of the press, led by Murdoch's battalions, makes them draw back from legislation that would undoubtedly sever the remarkably good relations Blair now enjoys with them. Blair's people are saying, yet again, that they prefer "voluntary" regulation. Earl Spencer's castigation of the media threw down a gauntlet to Blair, but it is one he will fear to pick up, for all its popular support.

Self-regulation doesn't work. Lord Wakeham, head of the Press Complaints Commission, appointed and paid by newspapers themselves, does the proprietors' job well - to protect the press from criticism by an occasional gentle knuckle-rapping. When I asked him what he thought of the British press, generally acknowledged as one of the nastiest in the world, he said he thought it was pretty good, though they sometimes "overstep the line", whatever that line may be.

Even with legislation, though, it is doubtful that the Royal Family can ever now escape this wild coverage. To be sure, the young princes will be safe from intrusive lenses for a year or two. But it doesn't need paparazzi snappers to feed the acres of impertinent speculation, the wall-to-wall rubbish and nonsense that will surround their every breath, smile and frown. When William emerges soon to adulthood there will be another crescendo. The Charles/Camilla story will not die, however discreet they are. If Charles really is seriously unpopular, he may have to abandon the throne to save the monarchy. But where would that leave the whole shambles? What kind of a king could William be, in his father's tortured shadow? Would they really want to go on?

How the Royal Family failed to sense the feeling of the nation in the days after Diana's death may not have mattered. The Queen's brilliantly crafted address to the nation, a bit too late perhaps, none the less worked its magic. But something snapped last week in the relationship between throne and subjects. For the first time in modern history the crown was openly challenged and forced to respond quickly and ignominiously to the people and to the tabloid front pages demanding they "do something". Appearing in their ludicrous kilts that first morning did not help. Pushing the boys out there looked cynical. Even making a point of holding Harry's hand, however sincere, looked to some like last minute image-making.

The press and the television funeral coverage since then have done their best to repair the damage: television out of some curious atavistic instinct to become an arm of the Palace, of Britishness and tourism at such times, the tabloids rowing back fast out of alarm at the prospect of losing their best-selling story. Tony Blair and his sure-footed advisers will be telling the Queen how to turn the royal firm into a Diana-friendly business. Cut the kilts, take fewer holidays, give up hunting and shooting, appear more often glad-handing the people, attach themselves to cuddly causes, kiss more sick babies, take the kids to theme parks, ride bicycles, whatever. Make themselves loved.

Will it work? Why should Tony Blair particularly want it to? We know constitutional reform is not much to his taste. He has delayed reform of the Lords, though, when it comes, it will strike at the heart of heredity and the monarchy itself. We do not yet know whether he really means to allow proportional representation, or whether one way or another he may scupper it. Desire for fundamental constitutional change will not come spontaneously from his government. But since he is so deft at catching the public mood, all will now depend over the next few years on what the public thinks.

My guess is that the erosion of public support which has happened over the past 10 years will surge ahead: 55 per cent in a MORI poll last year said the country would be better or no worse off without a monarchy. Diana worship is anti-royal and anti-establishment in essence, odd though that seems given the way the funeral was covered. If Charles's unpopularity grows, can he bear it? Earl Spencer may be a curious vehicle for bringing about the downfall of the Crown, but, however unfair and vengeful, his words transmitted across the globe will not be forgotten. A fatal combination of loss of nerve within the Royal Family, and growing unpopularity among the people, may yet mean that this Queen will be our last.