World

The royal future

After Diana, Britons take stock of their monarchy

September 22 1997
World

The royal future

After Diana, Britons take stock of their monarchy

September 22 1997

The royal future

World

After Diana, Britons take stock of their monarchy

Slowly, the flowers began to disappear. Outside the gates of St. James’s Palace in London, volunteers and park services staff started gently cutting through the thousands of cellophane wrappers, and then carefully removing the attached messages—some in crayon, some in handsome wood frames, all expressing love, condolences and tributes for Diana, Princess of Wales. For the volunteers, the work, begun last Thursday, was painstaking and emotional. “It’s quite sad,” said Maureen Ambrage, wearing the orange tunic of the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, which supplied the bulk of the removal force. “It’s very moving.” And the task is daunting. Mourners left some 1.5 million poems, cards and messages around St. James’s, Kensington and Buckingham palaces; volunteers will remove each one, to be preserved in an archive. Thousands of stuffed animals will be donated to hospitals and orphanages. As for the flowers, the healthy ones will find similar homes. But most of the 60 million bouquets, now covered in dust and decaying in the warm September air, are destined for compost heaps in the royal gardens. IN

It was an act of civic hygiene that contained rich symbolism—signalling the beginning of an end to the mourning that has gripped Britain, and the world, since Diana and boyfriend Dodi AÍ Fayed died in a tragic road accident in Paris. Before and after her Sept. 6 funeral, the public outpouring of emotion in Britain bordered on hysteria—often manifesting itself in bitterly voiced anger at the Royal Family, which faced accusations that it had victimized Diana in life and failed to adequately honor her memory in death. It was a revolution of sorts—the people, in their grief, taking to the streets in the thousands to demand change in Britain’s protocol-bound, tradition-oriented institutions. But as the country awoke from its long days and nights of mourning, for many Britons it was time for a more sober assessment. What, in the end, did it all mean?

From the unprecedented events surrounding the death of Diana, a new Britain seems bound to emerge—more open, more democratic and more attuned with the sympathetic, human-scale spirit that the Princess of Wales has come to embody. The shift in national mood was already there—witness the election in May of a Labour government, after 18 years of Conservative rule. But the aftermath of the funeral has enhanced the spirit of reform—and it could leave the monarchy, bound by 19th-century rituals. and values, in its wake. “There’s a new mood in the United Kingdom, controlled by a new sense of identity, and not by heritage and tradition and protocol,” says Tom Bentley, senior researcher at the London-based think-tank Demos.

‘With Diana’s death, the old and the new have been thrown into stark contrast.” Now, Britain’s institutions are hastening to catch up—“modernization” is the byword.

It is all good news for Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour government. More than any other public figure—with the exception, perhaps, of Earl Charles Spencer, whose stirring funeral speech for Diana galvanized the public’s sense of grief and outrage—Blair has captured the national mood and capitalized on the desire for change. And he has broken a few rules of his own. The day after the funeral, Blair spoke in a television interview about his fourhour meeting with the Queen, in which they talked about the monarchy’s need to adapt. Prince Charles, Blair said, was brought up differently from his mother, and his sons, William and Harry, will be “children of today with today’s attitudes.” Blair also revealed he had planned to make Diana a special envoy for Britain on humanitarian issues. In itself, the interview was a courageous move—it breached a long-standing custom that prime ministers not publicly discuss royal meetings.

And it also gave the impression, at least, that someone in authority was listening to the people. ‘What the monarchy needs,” says historian David Cannadine, “is a downsizing Benjamin LONDON Disraeli”—a politician, like Queen Victoria’s

prime minister, with the savvy to push the Royal Family into the next century. So far, Blair seems to have positioned himself to take on that role.

It could prove a symbiotic relationship, because the Diana fever that has gripped Britain seems likely to spur on Labour’s reformist initiatives. Chief among them is a Labour election promise to purge the House of Lords of hereditary members—long a symbol, to critics, of an outmoded and unfair class system in British politics. Since May, the party had seemed to put that promise on the back burner. But last week, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, speaking at a national trade union conference in Brighton, revitalized the issue—in no uncertain terms. “By the time we meet again next year,” Cook said, “we will be on the verge of putting into practice our commitment to pass legislation to clear that medieval lumber from Parliament.” Still, the Royal Family is in a different class than the hereditary lords, constitutionally and emotionally—it could not easily just go away. Last week, a Gallup poll in the Daily Telegraph suggested 64 per cent of Britons still respected the Royal Family, and only 11 per cent favored establishing a republic. But the survey also showed that people wanted change: 71 per cent desired a more accessible and democratic monarchy, along the lines of the Dutch system. For the first time, a majority—51 per cent—thought that the royal succession should skip a generation and that Prince William, rather than Charles,

should be the next king. “Public opinion is not against the monarchy,” says Cannadine. “It’s against the particular style of monarchy that’s on offer at the moment.” For an institution that for much of the century has defined itself by Victorian-era observances and rituals, remaking itself is bound to be difficult. And there are few concrete ideas on how it should start. One of them, however, is the so-called primogeniture bill, written by Lord Jeffrey Archer, the well-known novelist. Breaking with 1,000 years of tradition, the bill proposes that the Crown pass on to the eldest heir, no matter which gender. Archer admits that such a move would be largely symbolic—after Queen Elizabeth, England is likely to be reigned over by kings for the next 50 years or more. Still, he argues, the symbolism is important, and he fully expects the bill to become law by next March. “The suggestion from some members of my House that women are somehow not up to the job is the most balls-aching rubbish I’ve ever heard,” Archer told Maclean’s. “The truth of the matter is, we live in a new age.”

For the moment, however, the House of Windsor has shown itself to be uncomfortable in that new age. From the hesitation with which Buckingham Palace agreed to fly the Union Jack at half-mast on the day of Diana’s funeral, to the Queen’s stilted television tribute the day before, the royals have often seemed to misread the national mood many Britons expect them to reflect. On the train to the family burial at Althorp, north of London, Buckingham Palace officials offered to reinstate Diana’s title, “Her Royal Highness,” which she was forced to give up when she divorced Charles in 1996. Thanks, but no thanks, was the Spencer family’s reply to what many regarded as a too-late attempt at reconciliation. “Diana would not have wanted it,” said Earl Spencer, “and it is not what we want.” More embarrassments are undoubtedly on the way, with the publication of The Royals, a new book, five years in the making, by Kitty Kelley—the American biographer who scandalized the U.S. presidency with her intimate 1991 biography of Nancy Reagan. Promising to plumb “the hidden truths” of the Windsor family, the new book will not be published in Britain—the Duchess of York and Prince Philip have already threatened to sue for libel if it is. But New York Citybased publisher Warner Books, which paid Kelley a $5.5-million advance, pushed up the U.S. publication date in the wake of Diana’s death, and has released one million copies in North America.

Probably unfairly, the big loser in all the Windsor-bashing has been the Prince of Wales. The tone was set early. His decision to have William and Harry attend church services on the Sunday of their mother’s death, for instance, was perhaps laudably religious, but it was also widely criticized as unfair to the princes. And yet, his friends say, in the week before the funeral Charles aggressively urged the Queen and Buckingham Palace to respond publicly to the grief over Diana.

In fact, there is more than a little irony in the public demand that Charles step aside. For one thing, he is clearly as devoted to social justice as Diana ever was. His various good works—including the omnibus Prince’s Trust charities for young people and his Business in the Community initiative, with an annual turnover of $67 million—have made him a hero to many of Britain’s poor. And in his own, decidedly non-telegenic way, he has mounted a carefully planned campaign to modernize the monarchy. “No one could be more aware than Prince Charles that this is an institution that has got to adapt and change,” says Tom Shebbeare, chief executive of the Prince’s Trust. “Despite what people say, this is not a stuffy man.”

In the end, that may not matter— Charles seems stuffy. “Charles has always been a caring father—he just doesn’t show it in public,” says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine. “He has never wanted to be seen bowing to media pressure.”

In the wake of the unprecedented outpouring of affection for his exwife, commentators agree that any plans he may have harbored to marry longtime love Camilla Parker Bowles—who in previous months had enjoyed a public rehabilitation— are now effectively scuppered. Charles is unlikely to step aside for William—he has been preparing all his life to become king. But it is unclear whether he can effectively take the monarchy into the 21st century, or ever recapture public favor. “Charles is not a leader,” Diana told Tina Brown, editor of The New Yorker, in June. “He was born to the wrong job.” Observes Cannadine:

“He could never compete with Di in life when she was a superstar. He certainly cannot now that she’s a saint.”

Although the mourning has waned, the progress of Diana from tabloid queen to Queen of the People’s Hearts will continue. Kensington Palace, Diana’s west London home, has taken on the appearance of a shrine. Even as workers began dismantling the mountain of flowers there, thousands lined up to leave more. How long the worship of Diana will continue is anybody’s guess. There is certainly no lack of saintly images of the picture-perfect princess. But more telling, Britons also have a living, breathing icon in William—the 15-year-old prince upon whom the hopes of the country rest. “He is, to look at, Diana,” says Archer, who worked with the princess on her anti-land-mines campaign. “We’re stuck with that every day of our lives—we have that person to look at who reminds us not of Charles, but of Diana.” For good or ill, it is an image that will haunt the new, emerging Britain—and its monarchy—for a long time to come. □