In the forecourt of Buckingham Palace, under a leaden London sky, Queen Elizabeth II is doing what she does best. A matronly figure in a sombre suit and beribboned hat, the British monarch bestows a regal smile upon a Malaysian athlete while extending a gloved hand bearing a gold-and-silver baton.
The young relay runner, who will carry the Queen’s baton on the first leg of its journey to next September’s Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, bows deeply. So do the rest of the Malaysian and British athletes gathered outside the Palace as they, in turn, meet the Queen. There is, however, one notable exception. English middledistance runner Kelly Holmes pointedly declines to curtsy, standing erect in her track suit when she greets the monarch. “Pity about that,” sniffs bystander Anthony Hudson, himself a former “Blues” officer, a member of the Queen’s Household Cavalry. Raising a disdainful eyebrow, he adds: “It’s the modern monarchy, don’t you know. Bowing and curtsying is definitely on the way out.” And much more besides. Britain’s Royal Family, in fact, is in the throes of change, engendered in large part by the battering inflicted on the House of Windsor’s public
image in the wake of the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales, last August. The pressure is coming both from within, fuelled by Prince Charles, and from without, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is intent on “modernizing” all of Britain’s institutions, not least the venerable monarchy. Where it will all lead is currently the subject of widespread debate, some of it acrimonious. But Canadians may catch a glimpse of the emerging style next week when Charles and his two sons—Princes William, 15, and Harry, 13—arrive in British Columbia, The 49-year-old heir to the throne is a firm advocate of something Blair likes to call a “people’s monarchy”—simpler, smaller and less ritualized.
Telltale signs are already beginning to appear. When Holmes declined to curtsy last week, she was merely following a trend initiated by the Queen herself. Late last month, her private secretary wrote to all the Lord Lieutenants, the monarch’s representatives in the United Kingdom’s counties, reminding them that bowing and curtsying were optional, rather than mandatory, in the presence of a member of the Royal Household.
It is not just a matter of pomp and circumstance, however. In more practical terms, the Queen has already moved to trim the Palace’s $45-million annual transport bud-
Charles backs ‘the people’s monarchy’
get. Last December, the Royal Family’s cherished but costly yacht, Britannia, was retired. The Royal Train, a $4.6-million-ayear expense, is about to follow suit. Later this month, the Palace will take delivery of a new Sikorsky helicopter on lease from a private contractor, who is also supplying the aircrew. It will replace the two Royal Air Force Wessex helicopters once flown and maintained exclusively for the Royal Household by the Queen’s Flight, an RAF unit that has now been disbanded.
More such economy measures are on the way. A series of judiciously leaked reports last week disclosed that The Way Ahead Group, a committee of senior Royal Family members and ranking courtiers, had recently met in their first conclave since Diana’s death. The group is actively considering a host of internal reforms, all geared to cutting costs and refurbishing the Royal Family’s tarnished image. It has even hired a firm of executive headhunters to find a “director of communications,” in effect providing the House of Windsor with its first spin doctor. It also approved a recent change making the heir to the throne the monarch’s eldest child— of either sex.
Two factors appear to be fuelling royal
anxieties. The first is a recent public opinion survey commissioned by the Palace which suggested that the public viewed the Royal Family as “too large” and “too wasteful.” Equally important are impending, once-adecade negotiations over the Civil List, the arrangement by which the British Treasury currently funds $18 million in royal expenses
The reformers want a streamlined Royal Family
each year. Only three royals are actually paid by the Treasury: the Queen, Prince Philip and the Queen Mother. Prince Charles is financially independent, thanks to revenues from the property-rich Duchy of Cornwall. All other royals are funded by the Queen out of her own purse. But once Civil List discussions begin later this year for the 10-year period starting in 2001, the whole issue of the monarchy’s costs is likely to be dragged into public debate.
To pre-empt criticism, the modernizing faction within the Royal Family, led by Charles, wants to have in place a streamlined, slimmed-down Household. That is not good news for scores of regal cousins, the so-called “minor royals.” Many are likely to lose their
security escorts, saving the taxpayer some $70 million annually. A few could lose their homes if Kensington Palace, where many now live, is turned into a museum. There is even a suggestion that the two daughters of Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, better known as Sarah Ferguson, could lose their Royal Highness titles.
Prince William and brother Harry are unlikely to face such unsettling changes. In fact, for all the official concern about shielding them from a prying media, they have probably become the most appealing part of the postDiana Royal Family. So interest will be high in their Easter-break trip to Vancouver, beginning on March 23. During the two-day official portion, Charles will visit senior citizens, drop in at a suburban high school and take a helicopter tour of a planned island park. But the Palace has left open which functions the princes might attend. Afterwards the two, who are avid skiers and Snowboarders, will join their father for a private holiday, probably at Whistler ski resort north of Vancouver. In form, the Vancouver visit may still look like a lot of previous royal trips. But as the royal downsizing proceeds, the style of the monarchy is likely to be very different by the time William ascends the throne.
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