Maybe Charles should call a cab


PRINCE Charles and Lady Diana have gone modern. They'r separating, but not divorcing. She can still be his queen once he takes the throne, they'll have what amounts to joint custody of the children and the two will appear together from time to time.

Queen Elizabeth, meanwhile, hopes the "intrusions into the privacy of the prince and the princess may now cease."

But this 1992 arrangement, as up-to-date as Murphy Brown, may not wash with the British public and certainly will only whet the appetite of the press. Charles still might be better off if he renounces his claim in favor of his son, Prince William.

Charles, 44, who faces another 15 or more years as king-in-waiting, may be the chief victim of events that seem to be nudging the royal family toward irrelevance -- a crisis of far greater proportions than King Edward VIII's abdication in 1936.

To most Britons, life without the monarchy would be unthinkable, but the daily farce of one marital scandal after another has been dubbed "Dallas at the Palace," and when audiences eventually decide, "Who needs 'em?," it could be the end of the run.

If the members of the royal family want to keep their positions, they should "act royal," an angry young Scotsman I know declared recently. Although not particularly enamored of the family, he lamented the continuing controversy, which he blames largely on the Duchess of York (Fergie) and the Princess of Wales (Diana).

"They knew what they were getting into; they should have taken it and kept quiet," he said. "The people think they [the royals] should be a step above, and if they don't act like it, they're no better than the rest of us, and we don't need them any more."

Every royal move, particularly indiscretions like Fergie playing hanky-panky with an American oilman in range of a paparazzo camera or the recording of Diana's telephone conversation with a male friend or Charles telling an old girlfriend how he still adores her, feeds the insatiable, tabloid-reading British public.

As Queen Elizabeth II completes four decades on the throne, she must wonder where the next generation will take the institution she works so hard to sustain. Maybe, some speculate, she'd like to skip this bunch and somehow pass the crown to Prince William, now 10.

These are certainly not the royal family's first scandals, but this round of troubles is playing out under history's most intense public gaze, and each new scandal adds to the impression that the Windsors of Britain are even more dysfunctional than the Reagans of America.

It was only a generation ago that Edward VIII's abdication rocked the monarchy to its foundation. That is why the queen emphasizes that hers is "a job for life," and why, unless she drops dead, Prince Charles will simply have to wait his turn.

After all, Britain's last queen, Victoria, reigned for 64 years. Her son, Edward VII, was 59 when he became king; Prince Charles just turned 44.

After the abdication, the queen's parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, labored to restore the monarchy's prestige and honor, and Queen Elizabeth II has been relentless in that pursuit. ffTC She understands that in the modern world, the institution is an anachronism that exists only by the continuing good will of the British people.

Can she help but wonder whether her children will create such disrepute that the institution will simply wither away -- lacking any raison d'etre except pomp and circumstance.

The 1981 fairy-tale "Wedding of the Century" between Prince Charles and Princess Diana has degenerated into just another sour non-union in which the hostility is evident publicly, now acknowledged, something hitherto unthinkable.

A divorced king would be impossible; the monarch is head of the Church of England and defender of the faith. But is it more thinkable that Charles and Diana should spend another 30 or 40 years separated but dying a little more every day in their gilded trap?

Better Prince Charles should consider renouncing his claim in favor of Prince William, who, if all goes well, would be a young adult by the time his grandmother dies and presumably would have been groomed to step up.

If Charles and Diana could reach agreement on the upbringing of their sons, they could divorce and resume their separate lives in search of the happiness that now lies beyond them, and at least give the monarchy a chance to begin afresh.

Robert A. Erlandson covered the "Wedding of the Century" in July 1981 as chief of The Sun's London Bureau.

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