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Protocol Bends Under Public Grief

Prince Charles accompanies his sons
Prince Charles accompanies his sons Prince William, left, and Prince Harry after they arrived at Kensington Palace to view tributes left in memory of their mother. (AP)
By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, Sept. 6, 1997; Page A14

LONDON, Sept. 5 — The British royal family has been pushed this week into a basic reexamination of its role in a rapidly changing society, as Queen Elizabeth surrendered to enormous public pressure over the way she and the family have handled Princess Diana's death.

"They used to tell us what to do," wrote columnist Ross Benson in this afternoon's Evening Standard newspaper. "Now we tell them."

With the tabloid press barking at them like a pack of hounds and public anger clearly mounting day by day, Queen Elizabeth and the royal family for the first time abandoned their traditional lofty stoicism and remove -- attributes that have helped make the House of Windsor by far the grandest, most traditional, and, according to critics, most hidebound of the surviving European monarchies.

Last night and today, reportedly at the urging of Prime Minister Tony Blair, the royals have orchestrated an unprecedented, media-savvy flurry of gestures, appearances and photo-ops designed to show the public that they, too, were deeply affected by Diana's death.

The whole family flew back from its summer home in Balmoral, Scotland, instead of arriving Saturday for the funeral, as had been planned; princes Andrew and Edward, the queen's younger sons, arrived Thursday night as a kind of advance guard, quickly going out into the streets to offer pay thanks to mourners. The other royals all arrived this morning.

In her three-minute talk, the queen directly met three of the public's demands. She gave a warm tribute to Diana, indirectly promised to adopt some aspects of her style -- "I, for one, believe there are lessons to be learned from her life and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death," she said -- and expressed public emotion, something critics had said the royals were incapable of doing.

"We have all been trying in our different ways to cope," the queen said. "It is not always easy to express the sense of loss . . . . What I say to you now, as your queen and as a grandmother, I say from the heart."

The queen made the speech from Buckingham Palace's Chinese Dining Room. Her back was to an open window, and the camera could see the crowds of mourners at the palace gates in the background. It was an image worthy of any top image consultant: the queen and her subjects, united in common grief.

According to reports today in the British press, the family, ensconced at Balmoral, was divided on how to respond to the public outcry, with Prince Charles pushing for some kind of action and the queen resisting. The reports said that Blair telephoned Charles at Balmoral on Wednesday to tell him how sharply the public mood had worsened and that the family needed to do something urgently.

Blair, elected in a landslide Labor Party victory last May, is known for his skill at assessing and responding to the public mood. It was Blair who coined the phrase "the people's princess" in the hours after Diana's death, and by doing so set a tone for the week's commemorations.

A spokesman for Blair confirmed that the prime minister called Balmoral on Wednesday, but declined to say which of the royals he had spoken with or to describe what was said.

The extraordinary thing was that the royal family's actions came in response to angry public opinion, voiced by hundreds of Britons in television interviews -- and by the tabloid press in screaming, often bitter headlines that the queen is said to have seen.

Queen Elizabeth was born and raised in an era when British monarchs were understood to exist in a realm of symbol, tradition and protocol, a realm that was above mere public opinion. For nearly half a century she has ruled by that ethos. For this queen to respond to public sentiment in this way marks a major departure, and perhaps a sea change in the British monarchy.

The effect was to make the queen of England look, at least for a day, much more like the "bicycle kings and queens" of Scandinavia, of whom the British royals have always been so dismissive. In these diminished, "modern" monarchies, the distance and grandeur that separate royals from their subjects have been greatly reduced over the years. Sovereigns often retire in their old age like regular pensioners, and while still on the throne some can even be seen pedaling around town on their bikes. In effect, they serve less by divine right than by the implied consent of their subjects.

The House of Windsor, on the other hand, has hewn closely to the traditional roles of sovereign and subject. "I'm not your `Luv,' " Princess Anne, the queen's daughter, once snapped to an overly familiar press photographer, "I'm your Royal Highness."

The British royals have been particularly insistent on maintaining protocol. One of the sharpest criticisms of the family this week was that while flags were flying at half-mast all over Britain in Diana's honor, no flag at all was flying at Buckingham Palace, the queen's residence. Despite widespread hue and cry -- one tabloid printed a page of photos showing flags at half-staff around Britain and the world, with a shot of the bare flagpole at the palace in the middle -- the royal court stuck to its insistence that protocol demanded that the royal standard fly only when the queen was in residence, and then only at full-staff.

Yesterday, the queen agreed that the British national flag, the Union Jack, be flown at half-staff at the palace during Diana's funeral and for the rest of the weekend, a symbolic step, but an unprecedented one.

There was no consensus on the effect all of this had on the queen's many subjects. David Starkey, a constitutional historian at the London School of Economics and an expert on the royals, said that for once he just wasn't sure.

"I think that on one sense it's very sensible what they're doing," he said. "In another, it just has that air of a public relations exercise."

The queen's promise to learn lessons from Diana's life may in the end be the key element of the speech she gave tonight. To many analysts, this week's events seemed to show a real split between the royals and the nation over which they reign.

Britain is a much more modern nation now, with class distinctions diminishing and sizable populations of immigrants making significant contributions to society. The days when a small coterie of well-born lords and ladies -- "the great and the good," they are called -- monopolized the important affairs of the nation are gone. The monarchy once served as the capstone of this structure, but the edifice is weakening.

For the monarchy to survive, many people believe, the royals must find a new role for themselves in the new Britain. Over the centuries, the British monarchy has been nothing if not adaptable. Now, with their orchestrated response to all the criticism they received this week, the royals are suggesting that they might be ready to seek that new role, and that they might look toward Diana's example for guidance.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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