The tale of Diana's revenge

When a princess doesn't live happily ever after ...
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The Queen of Hearts but not the Queen of England; Diana's self- hatred, directness and lack of fear has shaken the British monarchy and will alter it for ever. They cannot get rid of her and so they will have to live with her. And that will change them, perhaps as much as they have changed her.

Those anonymous Carlist MPs who want her divorced, demoted to Duchess and packed off to California - traditional bolt-hole for disgraced English aristocrats - speak for the instincts of Buckingham Palace and the Establishment generally. It would be so convenient, so neat. She would be on the other side of the world, blubbing on Oprah Winfrey, while the wounds of Windsor slowly healed.

Charles would remarry. Camilla would teach the young princes to hunt. Her lined face would be no substitute for the old Di magic, true. But she would win public respect, or at least the respect of the most monarchical, Women's Institute platoons of public opinion. In due course, Charles would be King and she Queen. The Duchess Spencer, married now to a businessman from Baltimore, would not attend the wedding.

This prospect, or something like it, is what the Carlists first used to comfort themselves. But it's a fantasy. It ignores the princes. Is Diana going to leave them to the mercies of Eton and Camilla, to house parties and holidays among the ''enemy''? Is she hell. As the lady says, ''she won't go quietly - that's the problem".

There is something unavoidably Shakespearean about all this - the fight for the princes' affections; human feelings against the interests of state; pale-faced boys and tear-stained matrons; muttered talk of banishment and madness in the palace; the intrigues of courtiers.

None of it would matter, except for the parties themselves, were Britain not still at some level a functioning monarchy. The Crown's political roles may be circumscribed and very limited, but the Queen remains the source of national authority outside Parliament.

The enormously wide-ranging Royal Prerogative power held by John Major and his ministers virtually independent of the Commons is the wellspring, the place where monarchical authority still pours into the world. But then there are the tens of thousands of appointments, orders, rewards, military oaths, minor dignities and importances that spread through the tweedy moorland of British public life like glittering silver tributaries.

All this accumulated authority, surrounded by the last remnants of aristocratic power and wealth, is indirectly threatened by the ruin of this marriage. A lot of people have a vested interest in a ''tidy'' outcome, in a return to normality. These people include senior politicians and civil servants, as well as courtiers and the armed forces.

It is this that stops one from dismissing as paranoid the Princess's allegations of phone-tapping, dirty trickery and smear. She frightens the palace and the old establishment, and they are right to be frightened by her. They reason: it would be best if she went to California, but if she will not, perhaps she would kindly go mad instead? Like King George in the recent film, she could be bundled off to a shuttered house and live reclusively for the convenience of politicians and other royals.

But as with King George, there was something in it. She was clearly in pain and went a bit peculiar. There were, as one colleague put it nicely in the Commons, a few kangaroos loose in the top paddock. A Shakespearean princess would have woven flowers, rolled in the grass and haemorrhaged poetry. Faced with the same problem, a lack of love, this one goes bulimic.

She says she is strong now, better. She didn't look it. All that desperate body-sculpting exercise is another physical symptom of unhappiness, though a more common one. But if the Carlists say to the nation that this woman is a mad woman, a bad woman, a woman to be put away, then having heard her this week the nation's women, at least, will surely say no, she is much like us, just richer and prettier. If she is adulterous and self- pitying, if she has problems with her body, her husband, her in-laws and her self-esteem, she stands for millions.

This makes her a different kind of royal, a person who is now more interesting for what she shares with other Britons than for what separates her from them. Whereas Charles is distinctively, even eccentrically different from British males, very highly educated, spiritual, agonised, his estranged wife is becoming more ordinary.

Her pulling power is no longer the glib fairy-tale of the early Eighties, but her shared experiences of female life since then. The woman has disowned the princess. She is smashing the fantasy and the media's brittle, genuinely neurotic daily remaking of that fantasy. She is becoming a hamburger-munching, Thorpe Park-visiting, rollerblading mirror of modern life instead. That, presumably, was why she chose the television confessional - a victory of democratic banality over dream.

In the first volume of Pat Barker's trilogy of novels about the First World War, it is said of a mentally scarred young soldier: "He had missed his chance of being ordinary.'' That was her fate, too, and, however risible or banal it can seem, she is clearly trying to claw her way back to some kind of ordinariness. More important, that's what she wants for her children.

That is the core of the problem for the royal establishment. The "Firm'', if it cannot exile her or prise her away from the affections of royal- watchers by dismissing her as deranged, has no alternative but to surrender on her terms. This is what they seem to be reluctantly accepting. But if the Royal Household accept her back, she will change them. That, nothing less, is her project. The kind of royalty that Diana is seeking - friendly, chatty, earnestly demotic - is a Hello magazine royalty.

It is what the Windsors have been slipping towards for years. But that model is not strong enough, not awesome enough, to carry the constitutional, social and political weight that the British monarchy still assumes. Her way, which the Windsors will be forced to accept - if not through her, then through her children - takes them inevitably towards the final separation of monarchy and state, to a British republic which happens to have a Queen or King rather than a president for ceremonial duties.

It is being said that this is the greatest crisis for the Royal Family since the Abdication of 1936. It may be rather more important than that. The disappearance of King Edward and Mrs Simpson to golf courses and Nazi banquets was followed by business as usual; and in the war the Windsors fully regained their emblematic role. The monarchy's authority survived unscathed.

This time things will be different. It is an odd thought that the central authority of the British establishment can be affected by a young woman's pain and anger about her adulterous husband. But that is what happened this week. The charm and danger of monarchy is that it is a system in which human frailty and state power are abnormally close. Shakespeare understood that. So did the state servants who tapped Diana's phone. So now do we all.