Diana's death widens gap between Britons and royalty Populace sees stoicism as unacceptable coldness

September 05, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- As the long week of mourning for Diana, Princess of Wales, grinds heavily to its climax, Queen Elizabeth II and her family find themselves further removed from many of her subjects than they have been for a long time.

The breach grew from a widespread perception that the royal family has been indifferent to the death of the princess.

No one knows how deep it runs, whether it is more apparent than real. Or whether it will worsen or be healed by the mass catharsis that Diana's funeral tomorrow is expected to effect.

But yesterday, finally aware of the situation, the palace began to respond to what had become a popular clamor.

The rift grew slowly through the week.

The mutterings of resentment heard Monday in the centers of mourning, particularly at the three royal palaces of London, had become virtual demands by yesterday.

Members of Parliament, newspaper editorialists and people in the streets say they want more from their queen -- a word, a gesture that will tell them the pain induced by the sudden death of the princess is as deeply felt within the royal family as it is by the public.

This need expresses itself in unexpected ways.

What is traditional seems, in the gloom of the moment, somehow offensive. Such as the empty flagstaff above the great portal of Buckingham Palace.

Days ago people began to ask why no flag hung from it, lowered to half-staff as was every other flag in the country.

The reason was given: simple protocol.

The British flag never flies at Buckingham Palace; it's the royal standard that flies there. When the queen is in Scotland, that is where her flag flies. When not in residence at Buckingham Palace, no flag flies there. Never did. It's tradition, the glue of the English nation.

Many didn't want to hear it. They wanted the flag out, at half-staff.

"I think it's out of order for the queen not to put the flag up outside the palace," said Gary Law, a clerk in a cigar store on Charing Cross Road.

In a letter to the Times yesterday, William Dibben of Hampshire declared, "The lack of a flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace, be it the Union Jack or any other, is inexplicable."

Yesterday, the palace conceded: A flag would be there. It all reinforced what one commentator said earlier this week: "People power" was overwhelming tradition.

Then there was the smaller matter of the gun carriage. A petition has been circulating around St. James's and Buckingham palaces the past couple of days protesting the use of a gun carriage to carry Diana's coffin from Kensington Palace to Westminster Abbey for the funeral.

It, too, is a tradition for these kinds of affairs.

"It's just not her, being against land mines and all," said Anna-Louise Marsh-Res outside St. James's. "That is totally out of order."

Said her friend, Bianca Stone: "Everybody who knew what she stood for is against it. A gun carriage is a thing of violence."

Stone looked around at the crowds near St. James's Palace, gestured and said, "Diana has united everybody here. With her death we have a sovereignty that nobody respects."

That is a sweeping, unprovable statement. Queen Elizabeth II is a popular woman, if the rest of her family is not. But it is not the sentiment of an anti-monarchist. Stone believes the monarchy itself might be redeemed by Diana's sons, Prince William, heir to the throne, and the younger Prince Harry.

Why them?

"Because they are part of Diana," Stone said.

The Windsors, by their very nature, are probably disadvantaged in dealing with the kind of situation that has developed from Diana's death.

They are a starchy lot, not openly affectionate, nor capable of projecting warmth.

Nor are the queen's background and her political situation helpful.

As to the first, she is the United Kingdom's head of state. Its government is a separate entity, headed now by Labor Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Elizabeth has no far-reaching policy role, nor many duties that would bring her in touch with people at various levels in an intimate way.

She is a ribbon cutter, a ship launcher, a figurehead who specializes in staged roles.

The rub of politics does not warm her flesh, or heart.

Secondly, Elizabeth was raised in a palace as the daughter of a king who helped lead his nation in the war against the Nazis.

It was a time when the common folk were removed from her world by a greater distance than they are today.

Back then, kings and queens were figures with actual political influence, less ornaments of the state than monarchs are today.

In those days, insensitivity was not a charge that could damage the reputation of a sovereign.

Life is more demotic in England these days, and in a way the monarchy is archaic but probably not unable to adapt.

The prime minister seems aware of that.

He has played a decisive role in helping to bring the queen back to her people, if that is the way she is headed.

He has been in touch with the royal family throughout the week as it grieved privately at the estate in Balmoral, Scotland, describing the rising animosity welling up in the crowds outside the palaces.

Blair is a politician who knows how to make friends and influence people.

It is certain he would have approved the statement put out yesterday by the queen's spokesman, which emphasized that other duty Elizabeth has to fulfill, a softer role.

"As their grandmother," he said, "the queen is helping the princes to come to terms with their loss as they prepare themselves for the public ordeal of mourning."

Pub Date: 9/05/97

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