PARIS — Paris. -- It is hard to believe that the British monarchy wil survive the 1990s, but it is also hard to think in what way Britain will survive without its monarchy.
The impending breakup of both the Prince of Wales' and the Duke of York's marriages has robbed the succession of its moral authority. Can Charles really become king as the separated or divorced father of heirs to the throne living separately with their mother? (Or with their mother and a new husband or friend?)
There are conceivable constitutional alternatives: Charles's renunciation of the throne, a regency until his own son comes of age, etc.
But this is not a very compelling scenario for preserving a monarchy whose disrepute arises from the failures, self-seeking and frivolity of the present generation of successors to Queen Elizabeth II.
The royal family has itself to blame. Whatever the respect the queen has earned in the years since her accession to the throne, she has not proved herself a successful mother, if we are to judge from the catastrophic marital difficulties of every one of her children except the last, Edward.
Anne is divorced and is said to wish to remarry. Andrew's wife has left him. Charles, the heir, is alleged by his wife's friends to be an insensitive, unloving and unfaithful husband.
His wife, Diana, is said by the London press to believe that a campaign to denigrate her has been inspired by Buckingham Palace officials, and to have given the royal family an ultimatum ,, threatening formal separation from Prince Charles.
The Duchess of York, after her extensively photographed holiday in St. Tropez, has quit Balmoral, the royal palace in Scotland, in a manner that suggests that she will not be invited back.
It is not impossible that her next residence will be Texas, with her American gentleman friend, and her two daughters as well, who are also in the line of succession to the throne. (I hear my own dear mother's voice, saying: ''Are you quite sure that he is a gentleman?'')
The London tabloids have also taken up a question which until nTC recently it was lese majesty to pose, which is why the Queen should pay no taxes on what is generally thought to be a private income of some 42 million pounds annually (at present exchange, $82 million a year for private use -- all of the expenses of her and her family's public roles being paid by the British government).
The Queen is rumored to be thinking of offering to pay taxes. ''The corgies will eat less and work harder,'' according to one London columnist. However, Lord St. John of Fawsley, ''a confidant of the royal family,'' was reported last week as saying that if she were to pay taxes, this would ''undermine future
family security'' (a sentiment comprehensible to any taxpayer) while failing to satisfy her critics.
But suppose the monarchy were to end. Is Britain a plausible republic? The whole social structure of Britain has taken its characteristic form from the existence of the monarchy.
It is one of ranks, inclusion and exclusion, all given external form through the system of lords and commoners, which has residual political force in Parliament, and by the elevation of deserving (or otherwise) commoners to aristocratic rank.
It is a system that maintains the gentleman landowner as social ** ideal, which has not been particularly good for industrial Britain. The true aristocracy -- not that named in the Honors Lists for political or public services -- is considered to consist of some 80,000 descendants of 150 families who were ennobled landowners before the industrial revolution.
Their economic situation today may be good or bad, but their ranking social position rests on the existence of the monarch, of whom they are in principle the liegemen or vassals. Without a monarch their position would be meaningless, which is the case today for the aristocracy in France or Germany.
You can be a baron or marquis in France, but this has no legal significance and is useful chiefly to ornament your dinner or wedding invitations. You don't put your title on your professional or business card because professional rank is earned through performance. This is not always the case in Britain.
The monarchy also seems all but inextricably embedded in the English national identity, with not only political history virtually inseparable from monarchical history, but English social history as well. (Not British social history; the Scots and Irish are different).
From Shakespeare and Marlowe to D.H. Lawrence and Waugh and Powell, English literature has been all but totally bound up in the conflicts of monarchy and the social ramifications, complexities and consequences of its system of ranks and class.
The argument is made that monarchy is sacral, which is to say that the monarch, like the priest, is what he or she is by virtue of the oaths each takes, and by consecration and the laying-on of hands (by the church), and has nothing to do with individual merit.