CAN BRITAIN HANDLE A QUEEN SEEN AS A 'POLITICAL ANIMAL'?

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Britain's royal courtiers are grappling with one of the most embarrassing security lapses to face the guardians of Buckingham Palace in recent years.

They were catapulted into action after a Montreal disc jockey impersonated Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien, interviewed Queen Elizabeth II, and broadcasted the results worldwide.

The incident happened in the run-up to the Quebec referendum Oct. 30, but its implications promise to be long term.

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Constitutional lawyers are having a field day dealing with important questions about the British monarch's supposed detachment from politics.

During her talk with Pierre Brassard, the disc jockey, the queen offered to help prevent the vote going what she called ''the wrong way'' by making a speech on the separation issue.

She was treading on royal eggshells.

As well as being queen of England, Elizabeth is queen of Canada. This gives her ''a perfect right'' to offer the prime minister of Canada her views on the vote, says Lord St. John of Fawsley, a widely respected expert on the monarchy.

But the transcript of the conversation showed that the queen was ''prepared to interfere in Canadian politics,'' according to Stephen Haseler, professor of government at London's Guildhall University. ''This is the first time we have proof that the queen is a political animal,'' he says.

Palace officials hotly reject that contention. ''The queen is above politics, be they Canadian, British, or any other kind of politics,'' one says.

But that does not quite cover the comments the queen actually made in her chat with Mr. Brassard, which was broadcast in Britain and other countries.

During the phone conversation, she consulted one of her advisers and then suggested that ''Chretien'' send her a fax of ''the kind of things you would like me to say.''

Normally when the British public hears the queen speak, she is working from prepared scripts. This was the first time they had heard her discuss politics informally, albeit in the belief that she was talking to an authentic political leader.

Brassard also had success in breaking through the Vatican switchboard earlier this year to talk to Pope John Paul, but he is not likely to reach the queen again. She reportedly has ordered scrambler devices fitted to the palace switchboard.

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