Let's get personal
Charles and Camilla's wedding is a chance to inflict some real damage
Saturday March 19, 2005
The wedding of Charles and Camilla offers plenty of opportunity for republicans to score some goals. They could deride the useless royal advisers who failed to check the venue's viability and, more spectacularly, the legality of the marriage itself. They could expose an India rubber constitution that resists change but creates new categories such as "Princess Consort" when the need arises. They could highlight Charles's hypocrisy, falling back on the human rights legislation that he so often rails against. They could capitalise on the unpopularity of Camilla or dwell on our first family snubbing each other's nuptials. But republicans have had nothing to say.
This silence is scarcely surprising. Republicans in recent years have been very high-minded, insisting the real questions are constitutional and nothing to do with the soap opera that has fascinated the rest of the population. Ironically, theirs is a mirror image of what monarchists think. Royalists also believe the institution is more important than the flawed individuals who sometimes inhabit it. They must be hugely relieved that, on top of all the other wedding disasters, they don't have to deal with republicans.
But this republican separation of constitutional issues and incumbents fails to understand the nature of contemporary royalty. The monarch certainly has constitutional powers, but for a long time has not exercised them. The monarch's role is increasingly symbolic. The monarch is meant to be above politics, embodying national identity or values. That means their personalities and behaviour do actually matter.
Even republicans would be hard pressed to deny the Queen has fulfilled those functions. Apart from being the mother of dysfunctional children and having Tupperware on the breakfast table, we know little personal about her. Unlike her son, she has spared us her views on issues of the day, and we only know her as someone who turns up, shakes hands, offers consolation and does her duty. To the public, she represents continuity with the past, a link to the war and the old Commonwealth, someone who puts country before herself. As such she's a figure of unity.
Nobody could say the same of Charles. However sound he is on GM crops, however useful the Prince's Trust may be, however delightful his organic dinner parties at Highgrove might be, Charles divides people rather than unites them. The disaster of his marriage to Diana and Camilla's role in that unleashed unparalleled hostility to the monarchy at the time of Diana's death. Since then, attempts to spin Camilla and Charles as devoted old codgers or Camilla as a star-crossed loyal love destined for Charles's arms have never quite worked. Diana's story revealed Camilla as cynically involved in setting her up as a suitable and passive royal bride.
Nor has Charles since been able to set any example that might resonate with his subjects. During Diana's life, many saw his treatment of a well meaning, charismatic girl as unforgivable. After her death, partly as a result of the Burrell trial, we've heard how Michael Fawcett (Charles's factotum) threw unwanted gifts on the fire (no wonder the invitation to Charles and Camilla's wedding announces that "there is no wedding list") - as well as performing numerous other peculiar functions. We've heard how an allegation of gay rape was hushed up. We've seen the palace conduct its own inquiry and release the findings the day before the invasion of Iraq. We've even seen letters indicating just how alarmed Diana had become by hostility towards her.
Now, even as the wedding takes place, there's an ongoing inquest into Diana's death. Perhaps it won't ask why Diana was so afraid. But at the very least the public will expect to find out why the royal family agreed to have Diana's protection removed, leaving her to be hounded by the press and fall into the hands of Mohamed Al Fayed's so-called security. Diana's death also left a legacy of revelations about royal self-indulgence, cruelty, peculiar goings on and a remote aristocratic lifestyle.
Until I researched a book on Diana, such words as aristocracy and establishment seemed to refer to a powerless, semi-defunct species. But I encountered a stratum of people whose existence depends on finding royal favour and being part of the royal crowd. It's a world of double-barrelled names, polo matches, country sports and society weddings. Were it not that these days you can buy your way in with wealth and celebrity, it would be seriously inbred. Far from powerless, they own vast swaths of land and cultivate power and influence, mixing socially with politicians, media pundits and celebrities. The guest list to the "real" wedding in Windsor chapel, emerging slowly into the press, will tell you everything you need to know.
While researching the book, the most distasteful thing I encountered was the role royal sycophants played in Diana's life. Many of these titled and wealthy families closed ranks against her, providing Charles with safe houses to conduct his affair, keeping her in the dark and promoting the view that she was unstable.
I had a small insight into how Diana must have felt during an encounter with Jonathan Dimbleby, Charles's most vociferous public supporter, on the Today programme. It emerged, only once I was in the studio with him, that the BBC had agreed he could put his point of view without entering into discussion. He was allowed to speak after me and described my comments about Charles's failure to live up to the symbolic role of the monarchy as "poppycock on stilts". He then segued into a promotion of his own radio programme and his journalistic objectivity. The editor later wrote to apologise, but it's a shame Today listeners were deprived of the heated discussion that took place in the corridor afterwards.
Rancour like this follows Charles. Its not a simple division between "them" and "us", the toffs v the people. Charles also divides people along the lines of sex and race. There are still many women who feel Charles set a terrible example for husbands. Similarly there are many people in ethnic minorities who feel "the establishment" destroyed Diana, depriving them of their one friend in high places. If Charles fails to embody common values, how can he ever be a symbolic head of state?
Waiting in the wings is, of course, the figure who many believe will succeed where his father failed. Some see in William a healing figure, the son uniting Diana and Charles. They regard him as having the capacity to embody everything a monarch should. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary. His milieu is probably not much different from his father's and his peculiarly unhappy upbringing may leave him even less suited to connect with the lifestyles of the population. And in 20 years, he, too, may be another balding Windsor.
The power of myth is strong - almost as strong as the desire to see the next episode of the soap opera - and republicans need to engage with what monarchy actually means to people rather than hold an abstract debate that excites no one. The fiasco around Charles's second wedding has exposed hypocrisies and contradictions in our constitution as well as a person ill-fitted to perform the symbolic function of royalty. Here's an opportunity to inflict some damage on an anachronistic institution. So why not get personal?
· Ros Coward is the author of Diana: The Portrait