The last chance for Charles

On royal visits to Leeds, there was always that sinking feeling when the Serjeant-at-Arms approached with the command, "Councillor Meadowcroft, the Lord Mayor would like to present you to Her Majesty," and one hurriedly pondered what one earth one could talk about. Time was when a safe topic of conversation was The Children. Alas, that went out of the window ages ago. The sad dysfunctionality of the Royal Family was made all the more miserable for those involved by being played out in the full glare of publicity.

Brits have never managed to sort out their relationship with the monarchy. They can't decide whether they want some mystical fairyland ideal or just the family next door. Either way, in recent years they have got the worst of all worlds - neither the magic of the unattainable nor the wholesomeness of the ordinary. Of course members of the Royal Family are as vulnerable to the errors and failures of relationships as any of us, but, when inevitably they did happen it had to be nudges and winks until the moment all could be revealed. In the case of Charles and Diana the revelation was made, rather bizarrely, I thought as I sat there at the time, in a statement to parliament by the then Prime Minister, John Major.

Caught up in all of this was the painful spectacle of individuals playing roles in a national drama, as if there was some version of "England Expects" that could transcend human weakness and personal desire. Thus Charles had to marry a beautiful princess, however doomed it was from the outset. What endeared Diana to so many ordinary British people was not simply her beauty and charm but her evident world weariness and vulnerability.

The question in many people's minds when, as a Yorkshire mum would say, "it became a crying do," is why did Charles ever believe he could square the circle and have both Diana and Camilla? Did he think he could be another Edward VII, with a wife for exhibition purposes and mistresses for rest and recreation? If so, in an age of intrusion and salaciousness, he was exceptionally naïve.

I occasionally had the fantasy that Charles would suddenly appear on the Jerry Springer Show, with all its compulsive tastelessness, and with the ghastly audience yelling their support for Diana as she was compared with Camilla - as if looks were the determinant of love and affection. At least it might have given Camilla the opportunity to put her own case. "Let's bring Camilla out .... what's going on, Camilla?" "I was there for you, Charles." And so on. It might have given an insight into whether she was an initiator or whether it was reluctant acquiescence: "Oh come on now, Camilla, this was the heir to the throne of England you were messing around with. Didn't you ever for one moment stop and consider the consequences of that you were doing?" Alas, that is all now too late.

The British public has tended to be ambivalent over this whole business. Leave aside for the moment those at either end of the spectrum: the monarchists who despair at the lack of a sense of duty on Charles' part, and the republicans who rejoice at anything that might hasten the revolution. The bulk of the Queen's subjects were decidedly anti Camilla when she was undermining their beloved Diana, but after Diana's death there was a slow and reluctant acceptance of the fact of Charles and Camilla as a couple. I doubt that many within this large and amorphous group will now begrudge the two of them the formal recognition of their long relationship.

For Charles this represents his last chance to turn sympathy into respect. It certainly will not be easy nor immediate, but if marriage to Camilla enables him to relax and to show genuine warmth he has an opportunity also to build a relationship with the public. The one dimension, as yet unknown, which could derail that progress, is the ongoing response of Harry and Wills. In recent years Charles' relationship with them has been seen to develop, and if Diana's sons have it in them to find the depth of generosity required to accept publicly their father's decision, it will be a huge benefit, but if not - and few would blame them - it will be a big blow.

At times like this it is par for the course to reflect on the implications for the monarchy. Frankly, it is somewhat of a non-question. The case for and against its continuation owes little to those who personify it. The case against is largely based on the impersonal Crown as the source and epitome of hereditary influence for the succour of the establishment. The case for a constitutional monarchy is today mainly pitched in the negative terms of what it prevents. In my travels around new democracies I have seen enough of the abuses of directly elected executive presidents to realise that there is such a case for the monarchy. I agree with the late Baroness Seear's response to the question: "Of course I'm a republican," she said, "but it's ninety-seventh on my list of priorities."

I would not be surprised if in due course the Queen now felt able to abdicate. Despite her manifest sense of duty and her declared intention of carrying on, I have always felt that it was her awareness of the long approaching collapse of Charles and Diana's marriage that inhibited a decision to abdicate. In the new situation, with a favourable tail wind in the public's estimation, the time may well be right for her to make that decision.

The one constitutional change that this final step in the Charles and Camilla saga will bring closer is the disestablishment of the Church of England. It is difficult to envisage Charles as King of England, Defender of the Faith, and Supreme Governor of the Anglican Church, with Camilla as his consort in whatever clever form of words is devised to enable yet another compromise. This is the twenty-first century, not the sixteenth, and I do not think it will wash. And it doesn't need to. Disestablishment will be legally complicated but it will be morally right and beneficial to the church.

Finally, pity the poor tabloid journalists. After an initial flurry, the Camilla scene will no doubt become tranquil and calm. Middle-aged married couples are much less newsworthy than a bit on the side, even when it's the heir to the throne. Charles has shot the red tops' fox! With Iraq, Darfur and a host of crises around the world, this is hardly global news. But it is important to the two individuals involved. Good luck to them both, I say.

10 February 2005