With Scandals, British Royal Family Fails to Fulfill Its Contract

When an unhappy young woman locked in a loveless marriage tries and fails six times to commit suicide, it is reasonable to conclude that she is incompetent, frivolous or desperate. And if it is true that Diana, Princess of Wales, failed repeatedly to end her wretched if lavish life, she may at least have delivered a mortal blow to the increasingly rickety royal family she aspired to join.

Britain's version of the social contract is tottering before our eyes. In return for our deference, a royal yacht, palaces and endless tax-free wealth, the British crown is supposed to provide something.


The contract is unwritten. But ever since Queen Victoria rescued the old family business from an earlier wave of ignominious divorce scandals in the 19th century, the monarchy sought to embody constitutional stability and national unity, above all to provide a constant example of stable family values. This generation of Windsors is failing spectacularly to live up to their side of the bargain.

* Princess Anne, the queen's only daughter, has secured a divorce after the embarrassing news that her separated husband, Mark Phillips, had reached an out-of-court settlement with a woman in New Zealand who has filed a paternity suit against him. Apparently he signaled his hotel room for the assignation by leaving his riding boots outside the door.


* The queen's second son, Prince Andrew, has separated from his wife, Sarah, the Duchess of York. This followed the emergence in Fleet Street of some holiday photos of Fergie frolicking on a beach with a Texas oilman. The dust is still settling from a spectacular row in which the duchess threatened the queen with a lawsuit to keep custody of her children.

* The queen's third son, Prince Edward, who wimped out of the Royal Marines in basic training and now dabbles in the theater, is not much interested in girls. Good for him. He has at least tried to carve out his own career, but to maintain the dynasty we must look elsewhere.

* The heir to the throne, Prince Charles, is a mystic who paints decent watercolors and communes with the wilderness. Meanwhile his wife, Princess Diana, gets on with her own affairs. Last month's rumor was that she finds consolation in the jollier company of others, including the dashing King Juan Carlos of Spain. This month, we have Princess Die, serial wannabe suicide.

The problem is not that this appears to be a dysfunctional family, but that the British model of monarchy -- as the image of bourgeois stability for an adoring nation -- can no longer be sustained.

The queen's grumpy welcome in Australia earlier this year suggests that the crown's allure as the last bond of the old British Empire has faded alarmingly. Britain's inexorable move into Europe casts constitutional doubt on the monarch's titular role as head of state. Even in the British heartland, the future of the monarchy is now more in question than at any time since Victoria ascended the throne 155 years ago.

Having exported its celebrity beyond the jealous monarchists of England to out-gross "Dallas" as the planet's favorite soap opera, the latest gruesome episode of the Windsors has enthralled a global audience. The family has even outgrown the fairy tale rituals that the marriage of Charles and Di exploited, taking us beyond the age-old plot of Cinderella to explore just what happens when a royal couple fails to live happily ever after.

But if Diana's unhappiness explodes the fairy-tale myth, then what useful or even decorative role is left for the institution?

The royal pantomime has become a morality play: Those that live by the media are doomed to perish by its attentions. And ever since the queen decided, in 1969, to allow BBC-TV cameras into the regal privacy, set up a press office and authorized prenuptial interviews, the old mystery that hedged the monarchy has been voluntarily surrendered, to become the tabloid cannon-fodder of Fleet Street's circulation wars.


The rumors have been rampant for weeks. The Sunday Times, which long boasted the royal arms on its masthead, had bought the rights to a book on Diana which had been written with some help from her family, and had photographs from her own collection, in return for a fat donation to her favorite charity. On this flimsy basis, the book claims to be Diana's story, as authorized by her friends.

fTC To pre-empt this "scoop," with its account of five attempts at suicide which sound more like cries for help, the Daily Mail bought the rights to a rival book, which claimed but one suicide bid.

Is any of this true? We are told Britain's future queen tried to slash her wrists twice, her chest once, hurled herself down stairs and later into a glass door, and also swallowed an overdose of over-the-counter painkillers.

Having seen the woman since these suicide events are supposed to have taken place, and even shaken the royal hand, I can affirm that there was no visible scar on her wrists. And the paparazzi have taken more than enough zoom-shot close-ups to cast doubt on the alleged slash on the chest -- even were that a plausible method of suicide.

But the truth is now beside the point, because the chronological predicament is now so cruel. The most popular member of the royal family, the queen mother, is age 92. The most respected, Queen Elizabeth herself, is 66. The outgoing generation of the family firm had pinned its hopes for the future on its careful orchestration of the nation's love affair with Diana, the new blood now spilling across the front pages.

Beyond this family crisis lies something deeper -- the constitutional question Britain has so long averted. The monarchy exerts a potent, if subliminal, political effect. It is the keystone of a complex and historically rooted system of class and deference that arches down throughout the country.


The monarchy legitimizes the unelected House of Lords, and the Established Church of England, which the queen heads. The crown is the focal point of loyalty for the officer corps of the armed forces, who hold the queen's commission and swear fealty to her. The monarch picks the prime minister, whose formal title is Her Majesty's First Lord of the Treasury, and whose legislative program is delivered to Parliament in the Queen's Speech. Even our passports assert we are "subjects," rather than citizens.

For most of the time, this is so much Ruritanian fluff, entrancing pageantry which is good for the tourist trade and distinguishes us from that riff-raff across the Channel. But now we aspire to be a Euro-style democracy.

It has long been a neat British compromise, to assert the democratic future while keeping a comforting grip on the class servilities of the past. But if the future queen can no longer keep up the ancient pretense that Cinderella lives happily ever after, why should we?

Martin Walker is the U.S. bureau chief for Britain's The Guardian. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.