The British monarchy after Diana Prime minister's advice: Modernize, adapt to public opinion and carry on.

September 10, 1997

THE MAJOR THREAT to the British monarchy is public indifference. Its rituals matter less in a republican age to a well-informed citizenry who resent paying its bills. Yet however the surging national emotions after the death and funeral of the Princess of Wales are characterized, they are not indifferent.

British people who denounced Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles for failing to display sufficient grief may have been angry. They were not suggesting she ought not be queen. These commoners discovered they had strong feelings and expected the royals to show the same.

How this emotion will turn is unpredictable. Public sentiment is fickle. But the Windsors are the only royal family Britain has. Their ceremonial role is hereditary, subject to the sovereignty of Parliament. In 1936, the government of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin compelled Edward VIII to abdicate after he had refused to agree not to marry the twice-divorced Wallis Warfield Simpson of Baltimore. The public was not consulted.

Prime ministers call on the monarch, normally, once a week. Each is an important adviser to the other. At this time of trial for the royal family, the popular, young and brash Prime Minister Tony Blair has been at the center of their deliberations. He publicly wrapped himself in the emerging cult of Princess Diana, maintaining that she stood as he does for a compassionate Britain. Having ushered the Labor Party back from the dead as New Labor, he offers the same service to the royal family.

Mr. Blair believes ''that the monarchy is a tradition which we want to keep,'' and which ''will change and modernize with each generation.'' He also thinks Prince Charles will make a good king. Given Mr. Blair's huge majority in the House of Commons and his certainty about his own grasp of public sentiment, his advice will not be held back. Queen Elizabeth will listen to it.

There is danger in too-abrupt change. The more the royal family lets the public behind its veil, the more the public demands to know. The more in fashion the monarchy gets, the easier to fall out. Even Mr. Blair will go out of fashion some day. Meanwhile, he -- rather than Dianai's bitter brother, Earl Spencer -- appears to speak for the British majority on the subject now.

Pub Date: 9/10/97

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