British Monarchy Struggles to Retain Its Dignity

Can respect for Queen Elizabeth II be transferred to a new generation of royals?

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THE proud British don't take kindly to lessons from the Americans, but I hope that at Buckingham Palace they are paying a little attention to recent travails in the White House.

George Bush, a popular president, hero of the Gulf war, came crashing down in electoral defeat at least in part because he lost touch with the ordinary people in their time of economic discontent.

The British royal family doesn't have to get elected. But any monarchy in the end survives only by the support and respect of its subjects.

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The centuries-old monarchy of Britain has had its ups and downs, and some ripe royal rascals have peppered the regal lineage over the ages. In modern times, things have settled down since Edward VIII abdicated the throne in 1936 to marry a divorced American, Wallace Simpson.

George VI, who succeeded his brother Edward, turned out to be one of the most popular monarchs in history. A shy man, with a bit of a stammer, who must have hated being thrust into the limelight, he nevertheless endeared himself to the British people by his modesty, his lack of extravagance, and his quiet courage in World War II.

Though there were plenty of opportunities for King George and his queen to seek sanctuary outside London from German air attack, they remained in the capital along with millions of Londoners who nightly endured the Luftwaffe's high explosives, fire-bombings, and eventually the V-1 and V-2 rockets.

Britain loved him. Britain never forgot. When, after the war, George VI died suddenly and his daughter Elizabeth, the present queen, inherited the crown, Britain transferred its affection to her.

A tweedy figure, never happier than when surrounded by her Welsh Corgi dogs and Labrador retrievers, Elizabeth II has retained that respect for four decades.

But today the House of Windsor, as Britain's ruling family is called, is in disarray and some of its younger members are in disrepute.

Of Queen Elizabeth's children, Princess Anne is divorced and recently remarried in a Scottish ceremony unrecognized by the Church of England. Prince Andrew is separated from his wife, who was recently photographed cavorting with another man. Prince Edward abruptly left the military, the proving ground of young royal princes, to follow an artistic career. And, of course, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, has just separated from his wife Diana amid a frenzy of tabloid gossip.

As if this were all not enough, there was a terrible fire at Windsor Castle, one of the most famous of the royal residences. There have been grumblings from the people, and even rumblings from conservative, pro-royalist politicians, about taxpayers having to fork out $90 million to repair it.

Meanwhile, there has been enough outright anger at what the royal family costs taxpayers, and over the fact that the royals themselves pay no taxes, that the queen has volunteered to start paying taxes and take on the support of some members of the royal family herself.

Has Britain's royal first family lost touch with its people in time of recession as did America's elected first family lose touch with Americans in time of hardship? It has, as the queen bemoaned in a speech last month, been a rotten year for the royal family.

Queen Elizabeth remains much respected. Can that respect be transferred to a new generation of royals, some of whom are involved in public shenanigans, profligacy, and excesses that are alien to the tradition of the modern British monarchy?

It is difficult to imagine tradition-bound Britain without the monarchy. But it is not difficult to foresee change in the character, influence, and standing of the monarchy. The question is whether that change will come from within a royal house anxious to be responsive to public expectations, or from without, imposed by a public disenchanted and dismayed.

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