Rift Threatens Monarchy, Prompts Calls for Reform

Royal family crisis heightens pressure to reform or abolish Britain's monarchy, and to better ensure rights of privacy

THE future of Britain's royal family is the focus of intense debate in the wake of the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Many Britons believe the monarchy must be scaled down if it is to survive. Others want the monarchy replaced with a republic. In addition there are calls for a privacy law to shield citizens and the royal family from media intrusion.

As Charles and Diana prepared to set up separate courts and divide the custody of their two children, a Dec. 13 Gallup poll suggested that 43 percent of Britons think the prince should renounce the throne in favor of his son William (now aged 10).

There is also a ground swell of opinion that Queen Elizabeth II should begin modernizing the monarchy, following her decision this month to pay taxes.

Roy Hattersley, deputy leader of the Labour Party until last April and widely seen as a moderate, has complained of the "bogus mystique" of the monarchy and urged a change in the constitution to abolish the queen's role as head of the Church of England.

"We cannot have a head of state who is also head of one branch of religion," Mr. Hattersley wrote in the Observer newspaper Dec. 12. "The monarch of modern Britain is the sovereign of Catholics, nonconformists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs, and cannot be head of an established church."

The sovereign's role as "supreme governor" of the Church of England is one reason for mounting doubts about Prince Charles succeeding to the throne at all. The Gallup poll indicated that large numbers of Britons expect the royal separation to end in divorce.

The Church of England officially frowns on divorce, and since the royal separation was announced there have been strong suggestions in royal circles that the Archbishop of Canterbury could not be expected to officiate at the coronation of a divorced heir to the throne. Princess carries on

Diana's future as a royal personage is also being questioned. Announcing the separation, Prime Minister John Major said there was "no reason" she should not be "crowned queen in due course." The princess's friends have said she intends to carry on with her public duties as wife of the heir to the throne.

But an opinion poll in the Daily Mail Dec. 11 showed that 82 percent doubted whether she would ever be queen.

A Mori poll Dec. 13 carried a somber message for the queen as she absorbed the public shock over the royal rift: Only 37 percent of Britons think their country would be worse off if the monarchy was abolished.

It is the first time the figure has fallen below 50 percent. In the mid-1980s the figure was 75 percent.

Parliamentarian Tony Benn, who renounced a peerage in 1963 to become a commoner, introduced a bill Dec. 14 which he says aims "to abolish the constitutional roadblock of the crown." The bill would create an elected presidency and separate the Church of England from the state. The royal family would be "able to live in comfort" but would no longer have a constitutional role, Mr. Benn says.

Only a small minority want the monarchy abolished, and Benn's bill has little chance of passing.

The royal crisis has boosted the hopes of those who want a privacy law passed, to protect the rights of citizens against intrusion by the mass media. Media's role

In a sermon Dec. 12, Canon Michael Saward, a senior minister at St. Paul's Cathedral, where Charles and Diana were married in 1981, said that the part the mass media played in their separation could not be ignored.

Present laws left the press able to "render any civilized family life almost impossible for those who are, justly or unjustly, the victims," he said.

Supporters of a privacy law are rallying around a bill which would require newspapers to "present news with due accuracy and impartiality," and would give a panel powers to enforce the rules. The bill was introduced by Labour parliamentarian Clive Soley.

The Press Complaints Commission currently regulates media conduct, but has no statutory powers.

Newspaper editors are divided on the merits of the proposed law. The London Times called the Soley bill unwarranted and unwelcome in a Dec. 15 editorial.

But Donald Trelford, editor of the Sunday Observer, said he would have "no objection to a privacy bill along the lines of French legislation." Strict privacy laws in France enable citizens to defend themselves against media intrusion.

The Dec. 13 Mori poll showed that 60 percent blamed the newspapers for helping to cause the marriage breakdown of Charles and Diana.

Andrew Morton, who described the princess's dissatisfaction with her marriage earlier this year in his book "Diana: Her True Story," denied that he had played a part in the royal separation. (Interview, Page 13.)

"My book no more caused the rift than newspaper coverage is causing the fighting in Bosnia," he said.

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