Time to Trim? Downsizing the British Monarchy

It took a clerk with a rubber stamp two minutes on Wednesday to end the 15-year marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Diana. But watchers of Britain's royal family say several years may be needed to rebuild the world's most famous monarchy after the earthquakes that have shaken it to its foundations over the past decade. Even then, the institution's future may not be secure.

As Charles and Diana went their separate ways, courtiers at Buckingham Palace were working on drafts of proposals designed to reform the monarchy and give it an assured place in the 21st century.

Among the suggestions Queen Elizabeth II will discuss with her advisers, palace sources confirmed, is a reduction in the number of members of her family enjoying a high public profile. This would bring the British monarchy more in line with its counterparts in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. On the Continent, most monarchies include an official "royal circle" that consists of fewer than a dozen people, whereas in Britain several princes, princesses, dukes, and duchesses swell the number to around 40.

Another idea being considered is abolition of the "civil list" - the government's annual payment to the queen of around 9 million ($14 million) of taxpayers' money for the upkeep of the royal family.

Ending that arrangement means the queen would support herself and her royal role entirely from her own considerable fortune, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars.

Another proposed change would be to abolish primogeniture, the tradition by which the eldest male child of the reigning monarch inherits the throne. Instead, the eldest child, male or female, would be the next king or queen of England.

The formal ending of Charles's marriage to Diana has coincided with a rash of public debate centered on how the Prince of Wales intends to handle his future relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles, a divorce and longtime friend. The prince has let it be known through his close friends that he intends to continue his relationship with her. There has also been much speculation that he has long-term hopes of marrying her.

The London Daily Mail, which takes an intense interest in royal matters, reported on Wednesday that Prime Minister John Major intends to warn the queen that such a marriage could make the monarchy "an object of derision and put its future at risk." The report suggested that if Charles sought to marry Mrs. Parker Bowles, the Queen's plans for reshaping the monarchy could be put in jeopardy.

Mr. Major, the report said, would make this point forcefully to the queen.

Meanwhile, Diana has begun adjusting to her new role. With the finalized divorce, and a $23 million settlement, she ceased to be "Her Royal Highness" and became "Diana, Princess of Wales." Diana will be able to undertake royal duties only if the queen approves.

William Deedes, former editor of London's Daily Telegraph, is convinced that there is a long way to go before the institution of monarchy can be restored to a stable footing. "There is no brushing aside the damage this broken marriage - and the exposure of almost every detail about it - has inflicted on the monarchy."

Reform of the monarchy, according to Harold Brooks-Baker, editor of the royalty-tracking Burke's Peerage, is likely to be a lengthy process. "There is a strong case for reducing the number of members of the queen's family who are constantly in the public eye," he says. "Many of the problems the monarchy has faced in recent years resulted from the considerable size of the official royal circle."

A good example of excessive royal exposure was provided by the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, whose marriage to Andrew, Prince Charles's younger brother, ended in divorce three months ago. Fergie, as she is known to the public, attracted adverse publicity and, says Mr. Brooks-Baker, was an embarrassment to the queen.

A scaled-down royal family consisting of the monarch and her husband, Prince Charles and his two children, William and Harry, Prince Andrew, plus Princess Anne and Prince Edward, the queen's youngest son, would give the tabloid press a much narrower focus of interest. The queen and her advisers apparently think this would also reduce the risk of royal scandals.

Royalty in countries with small royal families, such as Spain, Belgium, Sweden and the Netherlands, seldom receives hostile media treatment.

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