A PROPOSAL by a leading Labour Party politician that the queen should abandon Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, her second residence outside London, and move into an ultramodern high-tech ``people's palace'' is stirring acrimonious political debate in Britain.
The idea, suggested by Marjorie Mowlam, ``shadow'' secretary of state for national heritage, was attacked by the government as an insult to the monarch.
Stephen Dorrell, national heritage secretary in John Major's government, assailed the scheme as ``bizarre,'' claiming it would ``offend a large majority of the British public.''
Simon Coombs, a Tory member of Parliament (MP) who has claimed the support of ``most Conservative MPs,'' called for Ms. Mowlam's resignation.
But Mowlam defends her suggestion as a way of ``giving a boost to the monarchy,'' which, she says, is ``beset by scandal and a certain tiredness.''
The dispute erupted as, for the second summer running, the queen opened Buckingham Palace to tours by fee-paying sightseers eager to get a glimpse of the royals' domestic lifestyle.
Labour's heritage spokeswoman believes the palace's ``lurid decorations and unhomely feel'' is all wrong. It should be replaced by ``a less imperious style,'' with the emphasis on contemporary architecture and interior design.
``Red plush and gilt,'' she insists, should be replaced by modernistic living and working quarters and ``designer kitchens.''
Writing in the mass-circulation Mail on Sunday newspaper this week, Mowlam declared: ``The potential is enormous. All aspects of this new royal home would be modern, representative of the age we live in, and not a pastiche of the past.'' She further argued that selling Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle would provide cash to begin building ``a new palace to represent the Crown in the next millennium.''
The rest of the money should come from public subscription, in the form of ``palace bonds,'' and donations from industry, Mowlam said.
When her proposal first appeared, some thought it tongue-in-cheek. Mowlam is one of a group of about 100 Labour parliamentarians who believe the monarchy should either be abolished or play a less high-profile part in British life.
But when John Blackburn, another Conservative MP angered by the suggestion, claimed that she was an ``opportunist'' who ``holds the monarchy in disrespect,'' Mowlam had her answer ready.
She said she aimed to make it plain to the world that Britain was not ``backward-looking and undynamic'' but prepared to face the 21st century confidently.
Why not have Prince Charles, heir to the throne, spearhead planning of the proposed ``people's palace'' she asked.
THE press office at Buckingham Palace declined to comment Sunday on the Mowlam proposals, which come at a time of considerable sensitivity by members of the royal family to criticism about their lifestyle and financial arrangements.
Last year an entire wing of Windsor Castle was destroyed by fire. But when the government suggested that the damage could be paid for by public donations, only a trickle of money flowed in.
Soon afterward, the queen announced that she would pay for the damage at Windsor by throwing open the doors of Buckingham Palace and using the entry fees to meet the cost of repairs. She also agreed to pay taxes for the first time.
Last June, in another move to economize, she announced that the royal yacht, Britannia, would not be replaced when it reached the end of its useful life.
One monarchy-supporting Labour MP said that Mowlam, by proposing the sale of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle and replacing them with a modern royal complex, ``hit the queen where it will hurt most.''