They might want a different king but the fight could destroy the Crown

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A HORRID incident disturbed the marriage of Bertie, Prince of Wales, in 1863. One of Queen Victoria's grandsons had been forced into a kilt for the occasion. Being German, he thought this was a punishment of some kind. Ushered into St George's Chapel, this little boy pulled out his sgian dhu (a ceremonial dagger) and flung it clattering across the marble floor.

Two British princes, also in kilts, grabbed him by the arms and bore him struggling to the ground. The boy responded by biting them both, deeply and painfully, in their bare legs. Yes, he grew up to be Kaiser Wilhelm II, who sent millions of men to their deaths, lost a world war and destroyed four empires, including his own.

Bertie, in contrast, whose wedding was nearly ruined, was not spoilt as a child and did not turn Europe into an abattoir when he became king. Instead he grew fat, made love to other men's wives, and was much admired by his people. Why recall these things? Because the public seems to have forgotten that heirs apparent come in different shapes, which do not change much after the age of six. Courtiers, on the other hand, are all the same shape: bent when seen from above, swollen when seen from below. After Bertie had been crowned Edward VII, the Duchess of Devonshire tried to push aside a cordon of Guardsmen so that she could leave the Abbey before anyone else. In consequence she rolled down the steps and landed on her back at the feet of the Lord Chancellor.

Reading idly through books about British royalty, I am astonished at how suddenly public attitudes have changed. The English (not so much the Scots) used to understand monarchy as a dual institution. It consisted of a human personality thrown together at random by the bingo-callers of heredity, but also of an unchanging Crown and Sceptre. The first might be contemptible; the second could never be. Thus when in the summer of 1789 a mob tore open the door of the Prince of Wales's coach and screamed abuse at him, it was offering no serious threat of republicanism. (That came a few years later, when radicals began to consider hereditary privilege and the rights of man.)

Now, as 1993 ends, only a few High Tories and ultra-right intellectuals still think that it is the Crown that matters and that the personal qualities of the monarch are secondary. Most people, without quite realising it, have slipped into assuming that loyalty is focused upon a person called Elizabeth or Charles, not upon the institution. Even 20 years ago, this was not true. I had just returned from Germany, full of radical impatience, and I well remember the curious anchoredness of English conversations about the state. Even if a 'bad hat' or a 'dud' succeeded to the throne, royalty itself would obviously still carry on. So people talked then. But it is just that sort of conversation which has grown rare and obsolete.

Instead, the English are being persuaded to regard the royals as if they were elected, as if they were officials dependent for their jobs upon the verdict of public opinion. That 'performance assessment' depends upon their personal behaviour as well as upon how they do the job (although nobody has the slightest idea how to work out whether the 'job' is well or badly done). The monarch, actual or in waiting, is forced into a pseudo- democratic relationship with her or his subjects.

Two conclusions follow. The first scarcely needs pointing out. If the British monarchy has made its survival dependent on the personal popularity of somebody chosen by genetic accident, it will not survive long. The second point is more curious. 'Performance assessment' will drive the monarchy back into politics. In mythical times a king, asked what he was doing when he sat on the throne, could simply reply: 'Reigning]' Recently, a British king or queen, asked what he or she was doing by opening hospitals, bridges and sewage schemes, could reply: 'Symbolising the unity of the nation]', or, more subtly: 'Giving people a good opinion of themselves]' But that is not enough these days. 'Performance' means standing for something identifiable: a programme.

Looking back over the last two or three centuries, the patterns of conventional politics - Whigs, Tories, aristocratic connection - stand out clearly. But there is also another set of patterns, recurrent but often in abeyance, which are those of royal politics. Every so often there appears a Court Party and a Prince of Wales Party. There is the faction of those who cluster around the reigning monarch at court, jostling for notice and favour and occupying the places. There is also the faction, generally younger, which clusters around the Prince of Wales and heir apparent. They are the Court Party in waiting, impatient for the old bores to hand over their places to a new generation.

But do these factions 'stand for' anything? The Court Party is generally conservative and established. The Prince's faction will tend to be more 'liberal', in the narrow sense that it resents the Court as stuffy, philistine and repressive. Very occasionally, these trends become more overtly political. The future George IV, as Prince of Wales, adored Charles James Fox and counted himself in some sense a Whig. Bertie, before he became Edward VII, was absolutely unpolitical, but he was at least the centre of a social set which had already forsaken Victorian values for a far more tolerant view of the world. The Prince who was to become Edward VIII and then Duke of Windsor collected a rackety set around him which developed real political hostility towards the callous and complacent ruling elite of the day, even though this anger was wasted in a stupid flirt with Fascism.

Now again we have a Prince who stands for 'change'. And it is a view of change that does not fit the left/right categories of the parties: a counter-attack on behalf of old values against Conservative 'vandalism'. With this has gone guerrilla war between Court Party, Prince's Party and the set around the Princess of Wales over the royal marriage and separation.

It seems to emerge from this that an organised faction now exists which is determined to prevent the succession of the Prince of Wales and to destroy his reputation. This faction is not Buckingham Palace. It is a Court Party of magnates, churchmen and press barons, who suppose that the Prince's 'eccentric' views constitute a threat to the values by which Britain is governed - and therefore to their own interests.

I do not compare Charles's convictions with those of his great- uncle, Edward VIII. But those who chased Edward off the throne in 1937 are the same as those who are undermining Charles in 1993: reactionaries disguising their hatred of change in the language of moral reproof. They won then, and it will be easier for them to win now. But this time they may bring down the monarchy as well.

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