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NEWS ANALYSIS

Path for Royals No Longer Tried, True

Britain: Monarchy learns 'us' and 'them' are dangerous pronouns to be on the wrong side of.

September 09, 1997|PATT MORRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — To employ a James Bond martini metaphor, the people of Britain have been stirred--and the House of Windsor has been shaken.

Now that Diana, princess of Wales, has been buried on an island in a lake comes the question that all of last week's lesser questions of precedent and protocol had been leading up to: What should the future monarchy be like or does it even have a future?

From the flower-bearing millions, the monarchy learned, belatedly and again, that "us" and "them" are dangerous pronouns to be on the wrong side of.

In large measure because of those millions, the princess of Wales in death may accomplish what she found herself thwarted at in life: changing the royal rules at unprecedented speed.

Already there are indications that the Diana divide was not only between people and palace but between royal generations--and that Charles, the prince of Wales, may come out of it smelling like a Tudor rose for his part in making precedent bend to the moment.

Until last week, it was an even bet that the heir to the throne would step out of the succession, marry his first love and grow organic vegetables. But through the standard process of oblique leaks, it began to emerge that Charles had pushed for the funeral concessions and innovations, backed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Britain's Channel 4, quoting a "senior official close to court circles," said it was Queen Elizabeth II who insisted that because Diana was no longer a member of the royal family, her body "was on no account to be brought to any of the royal palaces" but was to be sent to a private mortuary for a private funeral.

Her ally was her private secretary and Diana's brother-in-law, Robert Fellowes, married to Diana's sister Jane and liaison to the Spencer family, which also supported a private funeral.

Charles was airborne to London from Paris, London's Sunday Times reported, negotiating by air phone to be allowed to bring Diana's body to St. James's Palace. At one point, Channel 4 reported, "Charles had a blazing row with Sir Robert Fellowes in which Sir Robert was told to 'impale himself on his own flagstaff.' "

The palace has called that story "nonsensical speculation."

Charles the Modern

Until Diana's arrival on the scene, Charles was looked to as the agent of change, arguing for a modern monarchy, musing over the worth of other religions, setting up his Prince's Trust for Britain's young, poor and hopeless.

It was he who had reached across 50 years of post-abdication bitterness when he visited the outcast duchess of Windsor, calling her "Aunt Wallis." Even her death occasioned criticism for "callous" treatment at the hands of the monarch--and Britain had once hated her as intensely as it loved Diana.

Whatever the dissonance of their personal lives, Charles and Diana had much of their work in common--in particular, the young and disadvantaged--and on the day in 1996 that both a marriage and a royal team were dissolved by divorce, they sat together on a sofa at Kensington Palace and wept for both a marriage and a team that had failed.

Charles was savaged by talk-show callers for walking in his ex-wife's funeral procession in a blue suit instead of a black one--until it was learned that he wore it because Diana liked him in it.

The royals last week took hesitant advantage of Blair's media savvy and took up the visual language of the modern media, sending palace spokesmen out in person to speak to cameras and engaging in awkward viewing of tribute flowers outside the Scottish castle of Balmoral and at London's Kensington Palace, Diana's residence. And, finally,there was the queen's speech to the nation the day before the funeral.

Blair's media guru was invited to the daily planning meetings, it was reported, and a troika of Charles, Blair and the Spencer family had approval over each decision.

And hours after the funeral, during which Charles Spencer had eulogized his sister as someone who "needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic," Buckingham Palace even raised the possibility of restoring to Diana the title she had lost with her divorce: "her royal highness." The Spencer family rejected the offer, a palace spokesman said Monday.

Some court observers believe last week's close call gives Charles more leverage to persuade the institution to move into the 21st century with the rest of the nation. As he remarked years ago, "Something as curious as the monarchy won't survive unless you take account of people's attitudes."

Without direct political or military power, the monarchy not only needs to do but to be seen to do. And that means dealing with the press, in what has been the unwinnable struggle of the modern monarchy: How much press is enough, how much is too much, and how, like Dr. Frankenstein, can the royals keep the monster they had a hand in creating from destroying them?

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