Time to switch off the royal soap opera

The Queen may want a new storyline, but the show is at risk, says Bryan Appleyard
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The Independent Online
The Princess of Wales's Panorama interview and the Queen's reaction in calling for a divorce makes at least one thing clear: this is not, indeed never has been, a constitutional issue. Through the long years of royal crises, various "constitutional experts" have been wheeled on and off the stage to speak sagely of the implications of toe-sucking, mobile phone bugging or bulimia. A few royals have always behaved badly, we are told, yet the institution has survived. Bagehot and Burke are solemnly invoked and everybody feels better.

But the truth is now out and the "experts" can be shown the door. The constitution has nothing to do with it. How could it? We don't have one. Only one thing really counts these days: the approval or disapproval of the masses.

To those of us unblinded by expertise, this has been obvious from the beginning. The whole point about the catastrophic behaviour of the Queen's children has been that, in contemporary Britain, it could not be hidden. The walls of deference and discretion that used to surround the royals have been too thoroughly undermined by the media and by the disintegration of a trusted inner circle of aristocrats and courtiers. Family problems are now likely to be publicised because the press will always be eager to provide resentful royals or hangers-on with money and/or a handy opportunity for score-settling.

The graceless feud between the Prince and Princess of Wales is the supreme expression of this new style of media-amplified family row. Diana, at arm's length, co-operates with Andrew Morton's book; Charles co-operates with Jonathan Dimbleby's. Charles admits adultery on television; Diana does the same; and, the evidence of her wounds oozing out of her kohl- rimmed eyes, gently but decisively takes the opportunity to knife the whole Windsor clan. Nobody throws plates any more - too messy. They just call their pals in the media.

Perhaps without knowing it, Charles and Diana are acknowledging that the constitution is indeed bunk. Precedent and tradition are useless as guides: this is the age of the soundbite, the hot, sweet hit of the media confession. Charles, unskilfully, is playing for the popular vote; Diana, very skilfully, is doing the same. They have learnt the rules of the game, the game of emotionally coercing the masses.

The Queen successfully maintains her own position by not playing. She doesn't pour out her heart on television. As a result, she is seen as sinned against by her children rather than sinning. She may have brought them up in a rather strange and, with hindsight, ill-judged way. But who, when it comes to children, ever gets it right?

Strategically, however, I think she has got it wrong. From the undeferential Sixties onwards she has had the problem of finding a convincing role for the royals. The one she chose was that of exemplary family. She allowed documentary cameras into their home and we saw them as - sort of - ordinary people, the ideal extended family to which we could all aspire.

She was playing with fire. On the one hand, she dangled bait in front of the media sharks - the big story about the exemplary family could only ever be that it was not, in fact, exemplary. On the other hand, she was assuming her own regal sense of discipline would be transmitted to the next generation. The media set about tearing down the chosen image. One by one the young royals, and assorted courtiers, co-operated.

The Queen's latest tactic is a risky attempt to intervene in the shark pool. Demanding a divorce is an attempt to outflank Diana. The Panorama interview was a shocker, a malign combination of populist psychobabble and simple revelation. Take away the big, soppy eyes and the drawn, gym- fit face and what we had here was a vengeful superstar, viciously ripping away at the manners and pretences of the House of Windsor.

The Princess chose to play very hard ball indeed and now the Queen has decided to call her bluff. The risk is that Diana will not be called; she will either fight the divorce or continue her programme of Windsor- bashing. Or both.

The threat to Diana is that she might be utterly marginalised by divorce. Stripped of any legal connection to the Windsors, she would be in danger of drifting into a sad media limbo. Even the tenuous link of a failed but still legally intact marriage can underwrite her claims to be a princess of love, an ambassador for Britain and a Queen of Hearts. Without that link the claims become bizarre. On what basis would she then walk down the steps with President Menem? Why should this strange, baseball-capped figure appear, unannounced, by our hospital beds? She might slump into being just another famous-for-being-famous person, just another jetsetter and partygoer, a Queen not of Hearts but of Trash.

If, as an alternative to that fate, she remarries, her claim would be completely void, she would have formed an entirely non-royal household and relinquished even the appeal of a sad, wronged, lonely princess.

The advantage to the Queen of a divorce is that the war could be said to be over. At least one category of royal stories would end. Fergie and Andrew still threaten almost limitless possibilities of undignified antics; and no one, in the present climate, should place bets on the stability of Edward, William, Harry or even Edward's fiancee-in-waiting, Sophie. But the primary embarrassment would be removed and the issue of the succession could be dealt with in relative peace.

But will there be a succession? This week's intervention by the Queen is a clear attempt to put a stop to the Royal Family as soap opera, to try for a period of calm in which, with luck, the monarchy could rebuild itself as a respected, maybe even loved national institution. But I seriously doubt that even a decade of peace could achieve such a rebuilding.

For the unsavoury, bitching implosion of the royals is just one aspect of a wider cultural change. Through the Eighties we saw a sustained, Thatcher- inspired attempt to revive British nationalism. The Falklands war seemed to announce that the bulldog Brits could still stand alone against tyranny. But that revival was an aberration. Now its credibility has collapsed. The lineage and the history no longer give us our unique claim to be a chosen people. The celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War may have helped to remind us of the last time we stood alone, inspiringly, historically brave; but they also signalled the end of that history. The old men are dying, the Lancasters and Spitfires are curiosities for the young. We shall never be called upon to stand alone again - and, if we were, we couldn't.

Now we all know that the lion had roared its last, that the revived nationalism of the Eighties would not last out the Nineties other than at a few gloomy Euro-sceptic lunches at the Travellers or the Reform. And, perhaps, now we all know that royalty is a luxury, an extravagance that we can only afford if its members can be relied upon to play the game.

For British royalty needs at least a degree of nationalism. However much the Queen might play the family card or Charles might moan about architecture, their legitimacy still rests on the remains of imperial authority. When the tabloids weren't ripping apart their family life, they were still glorying, damp-eyed, in the jewels and the ceremony, the whole "heritage" appeal of the monarchy. We wanted both the imperial mystique and the grubby scandal - indeed the two were locked in a vicious co-dependent relationship. If, after all, there was no mystique, how could there be any scandal?

But now, with the popular mystique of nationalism gone from the culture as a whole, what hope is there even for a soap-opera monarchy? Without the cheering crowds the Windsors are just another dysfunctional family waving at the indifferent traffic in the Mall.

A divorce will settle nothing, even if, against all the odds, the people learn to love Camilla Parker-Bowles. Too much has changed since that "fairy- tale wedding". Apart from anything else, we stopped believing that fairy- tales were British-made.