Royal Soap Opera

December 10, 1992

"Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," declare Shakespeare's sleepless Henry IV. What he fears is rebellion, overthrow and death. That monarch's real descendants have more commonplace concerns: taxes, fire, unpopularity, domestic discord and a prurient press.

The separation of the Prince of Wales and Princess Diana has no constitutional significance. That was the point of the Palace announcement read in both houses of Parliament. Charles is still heir to the British throne. His son, William, is next in line. Diana, however separately she lives, remains his wife and stands to be called queen when he succeeds as king.

The difference between the separation of Charles and Diana and that of his brother Andrew and Sarah is that Diana is retained in the family business. She will carry out public engagements. As wife and mother of kings, Diana's position matters. Sarah's does not.

By itself, this announcement means nothing. But it comes in the wake of the fire at Windsor Castle, the public disquiet at paying for restoration, the decision of Queen Elizabeth to pay taxes and take five relatives off the public payroll, the incessant prying into the private lives of the royals by the harpies of the tabloid press, and the queen's confession that it has been a horrible year.

It comes on the eve of the remarriage of Charles' divorced sister, Anne. The Church of England, of which her mother Elizabeth is "Head," frowns on remarriage. Yet it was created four and a half centuries ago to bless a royal divorce and remarriage.

People ask how long the monarchy will last. The monarch serves above politics as symbol of the realm, and may intervene if the political process breaks down. Both roles are valuable, if the people accept them. One of the odd aspects of the current saga is the insistence of some that domestic bliss be the first duty of royals. It was never so. Queen Victoria, last century, was the first to insist on an exemplary life, but that was what she craved.

"The reigning queen could possibly be the last," gloated one of Parliament's few authentic republicans, the Labor Party's Dennis Skinner. But the monarchy probably will not vanish in a stroke. Rather, its mystique and power will be cut away in thin slices, salami style, as they have been for centuries. That is what is going on now. It may in time lead to something as thin as the Swedish monarchy. Charles would still be king, but fewer people would care one way or the other.

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