SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Reports of the death of the English monarcy may be greatly exaggerated.


Jonathan Broder
September 9, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

two days after Princess Diana's funeral, flowers continued to pile up outside of Kensington Palace, her former home. But in a sign that things may be returning to normal, authorities announced that they would be cleared on Thursday. Meanwhile, in another gesture to the outpouring of emotion for the dead princess, Queen Elizabeth on Monday reportedly offered to return posthumously Diana's former title, "Her Royal Highness," which she lost after divorcing Prince Charles. Earl Spencer, Diana's brother, reportedly turned down the offer.

However, the monarchy's somewhat belated attempts to make amends for its perceived coldness in the immediate aftermath has earned plaudits from commentators who days earlier had almost written off the monarchy. Salon spoke with British political historian Ben Pimlott, author of the just published "The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II" (John Wiley & Sons).

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Last week the royal family was down. Now, after the funeral, they seem to have recovered. Has the anger toward them subsided?

Yes. I think people have over dramatized what was really a desperate series of press attempts to get some kind of story line going out of a week in which everyone was utterly preoccupied by Princess Diana's death, but in which nothing much was really going on except for lots of flowers being piled up. In the days after Diana's death, the public was confused and looking for someone to blame and they focused on the royal family because of what Diana had said about their shabby treatment of her. But I think that boil was somewhat lanced earlier than the funeral, by the queen's speech on Friday, in which she talked about her own sense of grief and loss. Most people felt she did what had to be done and she did it powerfully. It was quite moving.

Even after Earl Spencer's extraordinary blunt eulogy in Westiminster Abbey?

The royal family was certainly a target of his speech, although not the most important one. He also implicitly criticized his own parents and their divorce by recalling the long train journeys he and Diana made between their two homes. But by far, his biggest target was the media. There was a real bitterness in what he said. He lambasted them. So if we're now talking about people getting their houses in order because of Earl Spencer's speech, the media should be getting theirs in order as much as anybody else.

But just today, Earl Spencer turned down the queen's offer to restore Diana's title of Her Royal Highness posthumously. Wasn't that another slap in the face to the queen?

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Not really. If you'll recall, in his speech at Diana's funeral, he remarked in effect that she did not need a royal title to behave nobly. That could be taken to indicate a resentment that she had her royal title removed. You could regard it as a slap at the royal family. That is certainly how many here are taking it. It's also perfectly reasonable to suggest that it's a bit ridiculous to give a title to someone when she's dead, when you wouldn't let her have it while she was alive. As he said, she didn't really need a royal title.

So, you don't agree with those commentators who say the monarchy has suffered a perhaps irreparable blow?

I've heard some of those commentators, and I must say they represent an extreme, dismissive republicanism. What we saw was a unique funeral for a unique person mushrooming into a major social phenomenon. It's something that Britain has never seen before in this century and perhaps ever, with literally millions of people descending upon London to pay their respects, with the ocean of flowers at all the palaces and many other venues all around the country, and with the extraordinary proliferation of ordinary but quite moving messages. It did become a popular uprising of sorts and something that historians will ponder.

They also suggest that Charles -- who they believe has been totally discredited -- should refuse the succession and pass it on to William, Diana's eldest son.

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Certainly, there are those who are saying that, but I think it's a very short-term feeling and that it will fade. The fact is Charles is a perfectly decent chap. He's a bit gawky and awkward, but he's a perfectly reasonable fellow, and he actually does a lot of good works. And there are other members of the royal family who are just as involved in good works. Princess Anne has been an excellent president of the Save the Children Fund and very dedicated to that cause. Prince Charles has a whole range of humanitarian and environmental projects, in which he takes a very keen interest. There's also the Prince of Wales Trust, which is a major international charity. So that whole side of the Diana story is replicated. Unfortunately, the royal family don't have faces that look as good on television as Diana's.

And Charles doesn't have Diana's charm.

People who worked with Diana said she could be very hard to work with. People who work with Charles say he may be a bit disorganized but that his heart is very much in the right place. He is a worthwhile, dutiful, committed, very serious -- perhaps too serious -- man. And that aspect of him -- not to mention the fact that he's very devoted to his children and they are devoted to him -- will come through. In a year's time, I'm sure we'll have a different picture. One must remember that everyone is in a rather hysterical mood at the moment.

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So you believe Charles will become king of England?

As things stand at the moment, there's no reason to think that he won't be. Don't forget that the monarchy is not a democratic institution. Just because opinion polls may show that you're not the most popular member of the royal family doesn't change the situation. There would have to be a very concerted political move through Parliament for him to be advised to stand down. He would have to do something terribly wrong. Kings and princes don't stand down in this country just because people don't like them. Now, like Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, Charles could decide that he wants to marry Camilla Parker-Bowles more than he wants to be king. But I don't think he will. In this day and age, you can still have mistresses.

Still, a lot of attention is now being focused on Prince William. Earl Spencer vowed he would protect them from an arid, duty-bound royal upbringing. Can he do that? Whose influence will be the strongest on the two boys?

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The father's. Like for anyone else who has lost their mother. They will see more of Charles. I think that part of Earl Spencer's speech was outrage rhetoric. I mean, he lives in South Africa. So the Spencers can't reclaim them. I suppose they're old enough to decide if they want to spend some time with their uncle and aunt, but I wonder how that will compare with the amount of time they'll be with their father.

Unless they're hounded by the press and decide it might be better to leave the country!

Interestingly, several newspapers said today that they will not publish pictures of the royal children in private situations. So there's been some progress there. The question, of course, is how long that will last.

It's been said that Diana will present much more of a challenge to the royal family in death than she ever did in life. What sort of challenge do you see?

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The canonization of Diana presents a kind of standard against which the other royals will be compared in the future. And that's going to create some big difficulties. But I also think that the extraordinary wave of emotion we're seeing now will pass. Although there has been nothing quite like this before, other royal events also have produced great deals of emotion. It's almost as if the British people bottle up their emotions except at great royal moments. One thinks of the queen's coronation, her own wedding in 1947, Diana and Charles' wedding in 1981. Everybody watches them on television, nobody goes to work, but after a few weeks, everything goes back to normal.

Even if, as you say, a return to the status quo is most likely, do you think the monarchy has been changed in any way by the experience of the past week?

I suppose if there's any moral lesson to be drawn from all this, it's that people did like Diana's touchy-feely approach, or whatever you call it. I think the main thing they liked was the feeling that here was somebody they could talk to. They couldn't imagine having a drink in a pub with Charles, but they could imagine doing so with Diana. But that's a question of character and personality, and how do you change that?

Many people have argued quite convincingly that in the early 1970s, when the monarchy tried to become more accessible, that's when it began to become unstuck. When the young royals began appearing on chat shows and behaving like film celebrities, they lost all dignity, and people began getting fed up with them. So there are pitfalls down that path.

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I think what you might find are more informal touches, like the inclusion of charity workers in Diana's funeral march, more bringing of ordinary people into the palace, that sort of thing. There's no doubt that people are restless about the monarchy, but it's hard to figure out what they're after. I don't think you're going to see Prince Philip going to sensitivity training or anything like that.


Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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