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Britain's royal mess leads to cries for smaller monarchy -- or for none at all


LONDON -- The monarchy has again floated to the top of the agenda of serious issues in Britain; debates over its future rage in the press, in the House of Commons, even within the Church of England.

Paddy Ashdown, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, on Sunday became the first major party leader to call for the monarchy's reform and diminution.

A published poll of Labor Party members of Parliament revealed that more than half of them want to see the monarchy reformed and that nearly one-quarter want it abolished.

Dr. John Habgood, the archbishop of York, second only to the archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England's hierarchy, suggested a loosening of the constitutional links between the church and the monarchy.

Although he did not call outright for disestablishment of the monarchy, he expressed to the British Broadcasting Corp. his concern over the impact that newspaper stories about the activities of the royals might be having on public opinion.

"Looking back over history, the nation has been extraordinarily tolerant of all sorts of behavior among its monarchs," he said. "But all tolerance has its limits."

Charles Anson, the queen's secretary, is expected to go before a committee of the House of Commons this week to support proposed laws to curb the activities of the press in Britain, proposals that everyone knows were inspired by a spate of squalid stories published recently about royal family members.

Kelvin McKenzie, editor of the Sun, the second most widely read newspaper in this country, appeared before the same committee last week and rebuked it, saying that the people in Britain deserve to know at least as much about their monarchy as foreigners do.

He supported the publication of the Camilla-gate tapes in this country, (published first in Australia and by only two papers here), the purported transcription of a sometimes-raunchy but mostly pedestrian telephone conversation between the Prince of Wales and his girlfriend, Camilla Parker-Bowles.

Why shouldn't people know the future king of England was cuckolding his wife and Mr. Parker-Bowles? he asked rhetorically.

"You are hostile to ordinary people knowing what is going on in public life," he said to the committee, adding: "The whole world can know what's going on, but not you poor little people in the U.K. Not you people who actually pay their taxes, who support their castles."

Mr. McKenzie's newspaper, with a daily circulation of 3.5 million, is probably the most despised newspaper, at least by people above a certain social and economic level. It is anathema to the royal family, whose members provide much of the gruel the Sun feeds upon.

Most commentary on the tabloid press in Britain, whether in the House of Commons, on issue-oriented television talk shows, or in the serious papers and magazines, leaves the impression that Mr. McKenzie and the editors of similar papers are operating on their own, almost like a cabal of revolutionary nihilists determined to bring down the monarchy through a campaign of ridicule.

The question that rarely seems to be raised is who reads all the stories about the peccadilloes of the Prince and Princess of Wales? The fleshy adventures of Sarah Ferguson, and all the others?

Figures obtained from the Newspaper Publishers Association show a sizable number of readers of these papers, which at least indicates that Britons want to know about the monarchy, for usually the only place they can find out about it is in newspapers like the Sun.

Taken together, the tabloids sell nearly 12 million papers each weekday and nearly 14 million on Sundays. If one considers that each paper bought is read by between three and five other people, it indicates a lot of people are avidly consuming the tabloids' main staple, stories on the royals.

And lately the tabloids have been joined by the more respectable press in a more critical look at the royals.

The Sunday Times, for instance, this week published an extensive report on a purported new strategy by the royal family and its allies to isolate and denigrate Princess Diana now that she is separated from the Prince of Wales.

It is a hardball strategy, as can be seen in the quote it contains by the Cambridge historian John Casey: "The public are deceived in the princess. They will see that her friends are everything that is shallow and third rate -- a ghastly milieu where she fits in very happily. She will be diminished, especially when she loses her youthful looks."

The Sunday Times is not a tabloid; it only behaves like one at times. But this story suggests that it recognizes there is a growing audience for information about this institution at the center of British life and the inclination to be dismissive about it, as some Conservative

Party members of Parliament tend to be, will not make it disappear.

Even the Sunday Telegraph, a quality newspaper with a large circulation that fiercely supports the monarchy and conveys the royal view more accurately than any other, recognizes that the monarchy is an institution about which many people are curious.

Being a "monarchist" paper, the Telegraph is always sensitive to the rise or decline in republican sentiment in Britain, of which there is a substantial and enduring streak.

Thus, on Sunday the Telegraph published its poll of over 100 Labor Party MPs that found that 24 percent of them wanted Britain to become a republic, and that 32 percent of them wanted the monarchy remodeled along the more modest lines of the Swedish and Dutch royal houses.

This suggests a major policy schism may be developing in the second largest party in the country, Labor, which officially supports the monarchy.

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