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Can the Royals Survive Diana?

Queen Elizabeth/AFP
Queen Elizabeth enters the House of Lords with the Duke of Edinburgh on May 14. (AFP)
By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 4, 1997;
Page A01

LONDON, Sept. 3—Evidence of the dilemma faced by Britain's royal family after Princess Diana's death has been visible this week for all to see: a bare flagpole above Buckingham Palace.

Throughout the nation, flags are at half-staff in Diana's honor. But since Queen Elizabeth II and her family are at Balmoral Castle, in Scotland, on their annual summer holiday, no flag is being flown at Buckingham Palace. That is simply protocol, a palace spokeswoman said. This explanation, though, has drawn unusually sharp criticism bordering on open attack -- and cast into relief the royal family's profound image problem.

"[The] House of Windsor seems a cold, compassion-free zone where duty and protocol push human emotions into a dark corner," groused the Sun, Britain's largest-selling tabloid newspaper and a telling barometer of public opinion. "Where are the words and gestures to reassure us that the Royal Family are capable of caring like ordinary people do? Or more important, in the way Diana so openly did?"

The British royals, their standing eroded by scandal and growing public apathy, now face a comparison that leaves them wanting: Why can't they be more like Diana was? More broadly, they face a question they seem reluctant to address: Can such a grand, lofty, tradition-bound monarchy long survive in a rapidly changing Britain?

"It's a tricky time for the royals," said Robert Worcester, head of the Mori polling firm, which has conducted extensive public opinion surveys about the royal family. "There are a lot of places they could put their foot wrong in terms of sensitivity. . . . It's dangerous because there are so many opportunities to err."

Only today did the royal family break the stony silence it has maintained since Diana's death. A press aide to Prince Charles said the family appreciates the immense public outpouring of emotion and is "deeply touched and enormously grateful."

Polling by Worcester's firm and others indicates that the queen remains popular and respected, and that very few Britons, only about one in six, favor actually ditching the monarchy and turning Britain into a republic. But polls do seem to show that the British public is apathetic about the royal family. Mori has found that only about half of Britons polled believe the monarchy will survive another 50 years -- down from about 80 percent in 1989 -- and that fewer than half believe the country would be tangibly worse off without the royals.

In particular, Prince Charles, 48, the heir to the throne, has a serious image problem, polls indicate. Those who think he will make a good king someday plunged from 82 percent in 1991 to a low of just 41 percent last year, before recovering to 53 percent in July, according to Mori. If he is seen to stumble during what Worcester called "the canonization of Saint Di," several analysts warned, the bottom could fall out of his poll numbers.

Criticism has focused less on the concept of monarchy than on the House of Windsor itself, the current set of royals, an apparently dysfunctional family whose lives tend toward soap opera and whose wholesale embrace of tradition seems to have left them out of step with the nation.

The long recent history of royal scandals, divorces and indiscretions is well-known. Britons, who sing "God Save the Queen" as their anthem and call themselves her subjects rather than citizens, have read transcripts of the queen's son and heir cooing over the telephone with his married mistress. They also have read of a family whose members treat one another with numbing formality, and who use press leaks to snipe at one another while at the same time decrying intrusive media coverage.

Ironically, it is the royals themselves who invited some of this scrutiny. For most of this century, they have presented themselves as not just a monarchy but as an exemplary family setting standards for Britons to emulate. Queen Elizabeth reinforced this image in 1969 when she invited television cameras into the palace for a first-ever close-up look at the family's domestic life.

"They were never the family next door," said writer Julie Burchill, a longtime critic of the royals. "They are a very strange, Gothic, German dynasty. It took Diana to tell just how very weird that family is. They're like the Munsters or something."

Diana, for all her own foibles and weaknesses, and despite her own aristocratic background, had the ability to connect with people on a human level -- an ability that the other royals are perceived to lack. She literally touched people. "She was the one woman member of the royal family who never wore gloves at her public appearances," as Burchill put it.

That quality is evident in the massive crowds that have turned out in London to lay flowers at the gates of Kensington Palace, where she lived, or to sign the condolence books at St. James's Palace, where her body now lies. Many thousands of people have waited in line for up to 11 hours to sign the books at St. James's; today, in a chill rain, the wait was seven hours, and still people continued to arrive in droves.

Another thing is evident in those crowds stretching away from St. James's and down the Mall -- what appear to be disproportionate numbers of young people, black people, women. The line of mourners does not depict the Old Britain of stuffiness, stratified classes and exclusively Anglo-Saxon heritage, but rather a New Britain given life by immigration, Margaret Thatcher's economic reforms and the sexual revolutions of the past three decades.

Some people standing in that line said Diana, with her human touch and her activism on such issues as AIDS and land mines, spoke to them in a way that none of the other royals ever could.

"I think that a lot of young people can relate to her like a normal person, really," said Tony Ayoade, 24, a student of politics and economics at the University of London. Ayoade, who is black, said Diana had "a special thing" about her.

"I think the royal family is really being outdated," he said. "For me, she was the royal family, really. She was the people's princess."

Said Steve Green, a 34-year-old gay man waiting in the line at St. James's: "It's no one thing you can put into words. I'm here because of everything she stood for, as a testament to her and her life. . . . None of the other royal family have actually given out the love and affection that she's given out."

Ayoade, Green and others said the one other royal for whom they have warm feelings is the "Queen Mum" -- Queen Elizabeth's 97-year-old mother, who bravely stayed with her family in London during the worst of the World War II German bombing blitz. The queen mother, whose name also is Elizabeth, has her own, understandably old-fashioned way of making human contact at her public appearances: She always says, "Aren't the flowers lovely!"

One former Buckingham Palace aide who asked not to be identified, a strong supporter of the royal family, acknowledged that Diana had qualities the other royals do not. "I think it's just tremendous charisma," he said, "plus the fact that people identify with her. She really did care about these people, and they sense that she did."

He said he believes "a tremendous kind of iconic cult" was arising around Diana following her death but that it would be a mistake for the royal family to try to emulate her magic. "There is an argument that you don't want too much sensationalism, that the monarchy should just keep going, day after day, year after year, millennium after millennium," he said.

Robert Blake, a recognized expert on Britain's unwritten constitution and a dedicated monarchist, said he too believes it would be a mistake for the royals to try to be more like Diana.

"She was a unique figure," Blake said. "She was an icon. There's never been anyone like her remotely connected with the royal family. . . . They cannot provide a substitute. They must concentrate now on the princes [Charles and Diana's two sons, William, 15, and Harry, 12] and bring them up as far as possible as normal human beings."

Others, though, believe this might not be enough.

"They will try to disappear into the mystique they had before Diana, but the mystique now has no meaning," David Starkey, a constitutional historian at the London School of Economics, wrote of the royal family today in the Sun. "What we have seen with Diana is a new magic that works in our new world."

Blake pointed out that the monarchy has gone through bad patches before. Queen Victoria, for example, was so unpopular in the 1870s that a substantial republican movement began to bloom. By the time of her death three decades later, she was revered not only in Britain but by many others throughout the vast British empire.

The empire, however, is long gone. So is the long-running Conservative administration of Margaret Thatcher and John Major that so reshaped Britain over the past two decades. Britain is now led by young, telegenic Prime Minister Tony Blair and a Labor Party government that has taken a much friendlier and more active interest in royal matters than anyone had expected.

Blair is scheduled to go to Balmoral on Sunday to visit the royals -- a meeting that was postponed for several days because of Diana's death and funeral -- and is expected to discuss further measures to reform the monarchy. Already, under Major's administration, the queen agreed to pay some taxes and provide the millions of dollars that go to support members of the extended royal family each year out of her own pocket. Questions remain, however, about whether the family is pulling its own financial weight.

The efforts of Blair and his advisers, and the efforts of all monarchist activists, are focused on Prince Charles. Since Queen Elizabeth, 71, has indicated she will not abdicate in his favor, and since she appears to be in good health and has a mother who is 97, Charles may be an old man before he ever gets to be king. Nevertheless, those who follow the royal family are certain he will be king someday, and see him as the key to the institution's survival. They also realize how low his image has sunk and how greatly this could weaken his effectiveness as king.

He and the rest of the family are known to be disdainful of the "bicycle kings and queens" of the Scandinavian countries, monarchs who pedal around the countryside and retire at a reasonable age. British monarchs, Charles was told by his elders, serve for life.

For a time, especially before his marriage to Diana, he seemed to want to create a role for himself as a modest modernizer. But her flash and dazzle quickly outshone his more plodding efforts, and his passions -- in favor of organic gardening, against modern architecture -- hardly fire the public imagination.

Newspapers have been lecturing him about what they see as his duty following Diana's death. "If ever there were an occasion for the Prince of Wales to show that he has not been entirely intellectually and imaginatively stifled by his upbringing and adult captivity, this is it," said the Independent, a newspaper that in the past has tried its best to ignore the royals. "He needs, for once, not just to talk to people outside the circle, but to listen to them."

Charles is widely seen as cold and wooden. Some Britons, perhaps those most distraught over Diana's death, seem ready to blame him at least indirectly for it by suggesting that he treated her poorly during their marriage and thus drove her away.

Others make the point more broadly. "I think a lot of what this country can't understand is why the royal family ever let this woman go," Andrew Neil, former editor of the Sunday Times and current editor of the Scotsman, said in a televised interview last night. "She was their greatest asset."

One thing virtually all analysts agree on is that any plans Charles may have had to marry Camilla Parker Bowles, his mistress during his marriage to Diana and apparently the great love of his life, should be put on hold or canceled.

Public opinion has long shown that if Charles marries Parker Bowles "for the foreseeable future, and probably for life," said pollster Worcester, "it will do untold damage to the monarchy."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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