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Culture : Is the Sun Setting on Elizabeth's Reign? : As the queen begins a tour of the United States, there is talk at home about her abdication for the sake of Prince Charles.


LONDON — When Britain's Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Washington today on an official state visit, she will be greeted with an unrivaled mix of pomp and circumstance befitting the world's best-known monarch.

But back at home, she is leaving behind mounting speculation over the very institution of the monarchy and particularly over the appropriate role of her son and heir, Charles, Prince of Wales.

Some British monarchists even suggest that the 65-year-old queen, who has reigned since 1952, should abdicate within the next five, or at most 10, years in order to make way for her son while he is still at the height of his physical and intellectual powers.

While she is said to see the logic of stepping down, court insiders describe the queen as still scarred by the scandal of the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, in 1936, and concerned that if she followed suit, it might so devalue the crown that it would be the first step toward the end of the monarchy itself.

Given the mostly ceremonial role of the Royal Family under Britain's parliamentary system of government, the whole debate may seem much ado about nothing to Americans. But here, the public seems to have an insatiable appetite for news and gossip about the queen's entire extended family. "The Royals," as they are known collectively.

Each tidbit is endlessly analyzed and dissected by the nation's press, and particularly by the aggressive tabloids which regularly splash "The Royals" all over their front pages. Every major British paper has a full-time correspondent assigned to Buckingham Palace--all of whom will accompany the queen to the United States.

As leading gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, of the Daily Mail, has put it: "The Royal Family is our national real-life soap opera--'Dallas' and 'Dynasty' put together."

Given the intense interest in the Royal Family and the close scrutiny by the press, it's not surprising that both the institution of the monarchy and individual members of the Royal Family regularly undergo popularity ups and downs.

Currently, the Royal Family appears to be in something of a trough--at least as depicted in the tabloid press and in some public opinion polls.

Attention earlier this year was focused on the antics of Viscount Althorp, brother of Princess Diana, whose self-admitted "one-night stand" with an ex-girl friend in Paris was duly splashed across the pages of the popular press.

The Duchess of York, more familiarly known as "Fergie" because of her maiden name, Ferguson, came under fire for too much partying while British troops were engaged in the Gulf War.

Princess Margaret, sister of the queen, is faulted for not paying enough attention to royal duties--mainly assisting at charity and civic affairs--while Mark Phillips, the estranged husband of the queen's daughter, Princess Anne, this year was accused of fathering the child of a horsewoman he met in New Zealand.

Prince Edward, the queen's third son, disappointed his parents by resigning from the Royal Marines and going to work in the London theater. Some stories went so far as to suggest he was homosexual, which was vigorously denied.

Even the queen herself was recently taken to task by the conservative Sunday Times, during a national argument over raising local taxes. Reputedly the world's richest woman, the monarch's private income is nevertheless tax-free.

Only the Queen Mother Elizabeth, the 90-year-old "Queen Mum," seems beyond critical comment in the British press, since she is the quintessential grandmotherly figure who loves to bet a few pounds on the Saturday horse races and who maintains a steady round of royal appearances.

By far the most-watched of the royals are Prince Charles, 42, and his beautiful wife of 10 years, the former Lady Diana Spencer. No detail of their lives is too insignificant to report, and almost every day there appears in at least one newspaper photographs of them or of their two sons--8-year-old William, called "Wills," and 6-year-old Henry, known as "Harry."

The British seem particularly obsessed with what is regularly depicted as the troubled state of relations between the heir to the throne and his wife. Much is made of the inordinate amount of time Prince Charles spends away from his wife and sons. While recuperating last year from a broken arm, he spent a month at one of his mother's castles, rather than at home with the family.

"His failure to accompany his wife and children on a recent skiing holiday was crass," commented the novelist and essayist A. N. Wilson. "One photograph of him with his arm round his wife on the ski slopes would have allayed public fears."

And only last week, it was widely reported here that during an official visit to Czechoslovakia, Charles and Diana occupied separate suites on different floors of their Prague residence.

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