SHOULD Queen Elizabeth II give up her Rolls-Royces and make do with a bicycle?
Should she be told to sell off some of her six palaces and to order members of her extended family to go out and work like ordinary folks?
Just a few years ago, no one could have asked such questions seriously. But the opposition Labour Party has now asked them, sparking a controversy that promises to influence the result of Britain's next general election.
The man rash enough to propose the unthinkable is Jack Straw, Labour's spokesman for home affairs. In a nationally televised public affairs program Dec. 5, he suggested that the royal family should be slimmed down from the current 40 members to a mere six, drawing rebukes from senior Conservative ministers.
Michael Heseltine, the trade secretary, charged Mr. Straw with ``undermining the very fabric of the nation.'' Peter Lilley, the social security secretary, said Labour was ``setting a republican agenda.'' Both spoke with the authority of Prime Minister John Major.
But Tony Blair, the opposition Labour Party's new leader, backed Straw's call for a refashioned monarchy, including changes in the country's unwritten constitution.
Mr. Blair's officials made it plain that he too wants to see the royal family's payroll cut down to size and abandon many of its trappings.
He would also like to end the right of hereditary members of the House of Lords to vote in Parliament.
Most controversially, Blair and Straw have trained their sights on ``the royal prerogative,'' an ancient convention that allows the government to issue decrees in the monarch's name without Parliament's consent. They say a Labour government would abolish it.
The two men can cite considerable support and have been encouraged by by public aversion to marital scandals among the royal children.
Polls suggest that about 60 percent of Britons would like to see the monarchy reformed.
Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, agrees that ``a smaller royal family is needed.''
Defenders of the monarchy, meanwhile, have grown enraged over the image of the queen having to leap onto a bicycle and pedal down the nearest street. Prime Minister Major insists the government will defend the present constitution ``with every fiber of our being.''
Yet there are precedents for bike-riding royalty. Sweden's King Carl Gustaf is often seen biking near his palace outside Stockholm. His wife Queen Silvia goes shopping in local supermarkets.
The same is true of Norway and Denmark. Norway's King Harald prides himself on being close to his people and adopts a lifestyle which Harold Brooks-Baker, an expert on monarchy, calls ``unmajestic.''
Mr. Brooks-Baker says Britain's royals have opened themselves to criticism through the ``marital antics'' of the queen's children. He believes Labour, on financial grounds alone, is shooting at a vulnerable target when it demands a redefinition of the monarchy.
It costs 20 million British pounds ($31 million) a year for the upkeep of the royal palaces. The annual bill for paying the income of the queen, her husband, Prince Philip, and the queen mother comes to 9 million pounds. This money comes in part from taxes.
Ten other members of the royal family get cash from the Privy Purse - a fund derived from renting royal estates.
The TV program carrying Straw's criticisms of the monarchy seems to have embarrassed some salaried members of the queen's family by comparing how much they are paid with what they actually do.
Prince Andrew, for example, is paid 249,000 a British pounds year. Last year he undertook 109 royal engagements, at a cost, the TV program said, of 2,284 per British pounds appearance.
His sister Princess Anne, who is paid 228,000, undertook British pounds 573 engagements at a cost of only 398 each.
British pounds Princess Anne is the only royal to live in a rented apartment. Others reside, rent free, in Kensington Palace.
A retinue of courtiers accompanies them in what Alan Williams, a Labour member of the House of Commons, calls ``a medieval and lavish style.''
In this tussle, the queen is not without resources. She has just given her blessing to a scheme to allow an oil company to undertake exploratory drilling in the private garden of Windsor Castle, 20 miles from London.
Desmond Oswald, managing director of Canuk Exploration Ltd., says seismic studies suggest that oil worth about 1 billion British pounds may lie 300 meters beneath the castle.
If this proves true, the queen may turn the tables on her critics. Instead of the nation supporting her family, an oil-rich monarchy could even make it the other way round.