The story of Charles and Diana is not just the story of an unhappy marriage; it is also a contest over how to reverse the decline of the monarchy. Strangely, we do not take this contest seriously. We discuss endlessly our feelings about the Waleses - about which of them we blame for the marriage breakdown - but we rarely take any account of what they are saying about how Britain should be ruled.
The starting point should be the Princess's Panorama interview: because of our perennial inability to take a woman seriously, we paid little attention to her aims. She declared that we must be rid of our cold, remote, unfeeling royalty. Instead, she wants a monarchy that "walks hand in hand" with the people "as opposed to being so distant". "I would like a monarchy that has more contact with its people - and I don't mean by riding around on bicycles and things like that ... I think the British people need someone in public life to give affection, to make them feel important, to support them, to give them light at the end of their dark tunnels." She will offer us love ("I know that I can give love for a minute, for half an hour, for a day, for a month, but I can give.") She is training her two children to understand "people's hopes and dreams".
Many viewers failed to register her true objectives because of the modern way in which she presented them and because they wanted to support an oppressed wife claiming her rights. The royals had dismissed her as a sick woman. She was determined not to be stigmatised. So she talked about her illness to convince us of her health and to establish the legitimate authority of her opinions. In this, she succeeded against the odds. She attracted the natural British sympathy for the underdog. But that does not make her views any less archaic or any less absurd.
What the Princess is really trying to do is to go back to the 16th century and to resuscitate the royal healing touch of old. She wants to restore the magic of the monarchy, to reinvigorate its divinity. She thinks this should be done by getting rid of the stiff-upper-lip superiority.
The Prince sees the future of the monarchy quite differently. His sights are set on the 19th century, on the formative moments of the modern monarchy. He stands for a kind of nostalgic pastoralism and for traditional values - Victorian architecture, the teaching of good English, and so on. For me, the Prince's view of his role is best summed up by an incident during his television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby. The interviewer observed that Charles would be King of England. He was promptly interrupted: "King of Britain, Mr Dimbleby, King of Britain." The last word was gently but emphatically stressed and it contrasted starkly with his wife's forthright "Queen of Hearts" proposal.
Even that interview infuriated the Prince's parents because of its modicum of frankness. The Queen has always taken the view that the sanctity of her role requires distance. She holds court but does not hold hands. Her son merely tries to modify that approach, to reduce the distance, but not by too much. Like most of the rest of his family, he wants gradual change and believes that he can control it.
The Princess is the revolutionary: she wants a populist transformation. But it is important to understand that she is no more democratic (let alone republican) in her aims than what she calls "the enemy". Indeed, in her comments about riding bicycles, she explicitly disavowed the model of European royalty. Riding bicycles, however, is not what makes the Europeans different from the House of Windsor. (How many of them drive themselves daily to a public gym?) What makes them more ordinary and less important is that their role is explicitly defined by a written constitution. Across the Continent, from Sweden to Spain, monarchs head their nations. But unlike British royalty, they are not the unlimited embodiment of state, church and constitution. By rejecting the European example, Diana shows that her project is not an improved, democratic form of constitutional monarchy but a modernised version of unwritten, awe-inspiring royal dominion over our hearts and, therefore, our minds.
None of the royals has embraced the idea that, like their European counterparts, they should be obliged to swear allegiance to a written constitution that belongs to the people. This would emancipate us from being subjects and make all of us - including the royals - citizens in our own country. But the royals feel they would be diminished by such a change.
This is why the monarchy is in peril. It risks pitting itself against the growing forces of decentralisation and democracy. A small example, but a significant one, was Brian Mawhinney's comment on Tony Blair's proposal to abolish the voting rights of hereditary peers in the House of Lords. It would endanger the monarchy, claimed the Conservative Party chairman. Once, this claim might have caused consternation in the populace. Now, it arouses no interest. Nobody thinks Labour could do more to damage the monarchy than the monarchy itself is doing. The important point, however, is that the monarchy may not prove strong enough to be used in so careless a fashion. If it allows itself to be hauled into the Tory programme, it may well find that it goes down in the general crisis of traditional conservatism whose culture was the mainstay of the old constitution.
Adapted from an essay in the forthcoming issue of 'Soundings', a new journal of politics and culture.Reuse content