How would you feel about a Queen Camilla, as in the wife of King Charles? Personally I’d be dead against, for reasons I’ll bore you with later, but what matters is how the nation feels. Because the Prince of Wales very much wants Camilla to be queen when he becomes king.
As has been reported elsewhere, there’s now a veritable ops department at Clarence House — jovially called ‘QC’ by its members — who are responsible for ensuring that the middle class is prepared for just this outcome. Actually, that’s probably over-egging it. Seems QC is more of a concept than a war cabinet, but also that if you’re not with the programme, you don’t last long in Clarence House.
Trouble is, this isn’t a good year for the project, formal or informal. It’s the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and you know what that means: a year-long reminder of the existence of the woman who was, is, the great impediment to the Queen Camilla project, indeed who was the living impediment to the relationship between Charles and Camilla even before her untimely death.
So, we’ve got the exhibition at Kensington Palace of Diana in Fashion — where she really shone, for she was, whatever else you say about her, lovely — and the timely reissue of biographies, notably that by Sally Bedell Smith of Prince Charles, which did him no favours, and, still to come, whopping retrospectives for the anniversary by every British newspaper and broadcaster, and most American and Australian ones. Admittedly, it is only those who were around 20 years ago and who can remember the seismic effect of the death of the princess for whom all this matters, but there are a lot of us.
It’s a generational thing. Young people aren’t much exercised by royalty (though fond of the Queen), by titles or by marriage generally — but for those old enough to have been Princess Diana’s contemporaries, the reminder of her existence is oddly moving. So it’s not an ideal time for the prince, for Camilla and for those who want to see Camilla named queen in due course, rather than given the less loaded title of princess consort.
Foremost among them is Charles, rather than the Duchess of Cornwall herself. ‘This matters hugely to him,’ said one journalist who’s followed the royal family for a good 30 years. ‘She is the woman he loves, for whom he’s put himself — and us — through so much. And he thinks we’d adore her rather more as queen than with a slightly lesser title.’ The Prince wants her to get the ultimate recognition, the 15-gun salute, that goes with the title of queen. It may have been good enough for Prince Albert to be prince consort and for the Duke of Edinburgh to be the Duke of Edinburgh, but Prince Charles — a notoriously stubborn man — wants us to have Camilla on his terms.
An unfortunate circumstance from this perspective was the death this week of the journalist Steve Hewlett, who happened to have been the Panorama editor presiding over Martin Bashir’s extraordinary interview with Princess Diana. That was the one in which she observed that ‘there were three of us in that marriage’: a line which, apparently, Ruby Wax — a friend of Diana’s — came up with. That gave the British public a glimpse of the pain that Prince Charles’s adultery caused his wife. For a project based on the principle of softly softly catchee monkey, it was a disagreeable intrusion into the gradual acceptance of Camilla as part of the national furniture.
The endeavour to turn Camilla into a beloved national figure when once people pelted her with bread rolls in a Sainsbury’s car park has in fact been brilliantly managed; nothing to frighten the horses. She’s been insinuated gradually into national life. We’ve got to the point where her minders will let her be photographed having a drink, though not so far that she can be seen smoking; she is sometimes shown with Charles, more often alone.
Plainly she likes her position — unlimited means, beautiful jewels, lovely clothes and an undemanding and agreeable lifestyle — and when she does her charity work (her pet project is osteoporosis) she’s respectfully received, though there’s nothing like the adulation Diana got. Her children are kept judiciously, amicably, separate from Clarence House and Sandringham — contrast with the Middletons, who are very much in evidence.
But there are, still, a number of impediments to the QC project. Not in Prince Charles’s immediate entourage, for the simple and sufficient reason that he has people around him who agree with him. Apparently, the replacement of his former private secretary, William Nye, with Clive Alderton was of a piece with his insistence that his courtiers should advance the cause — and if students of Tudor history find parallels with Henry VIII’s insistence, after falling for Anne Boleyn, that his people advance his marital affairs, well, that’s just how I see it too.
The Queen is not exactly an obstacle — her view, it seems, is the pragmatic one that she has done her bit for the monarchy; what happens after she’s gone is up to Charles. But the prince’s sons are perhaps a different story. The PR from the Palace is that William and Harry are best friends with Camilla; the reality may be a little edgier. They know how their parents’ marriage unravelled. But they are, crucially, financially dependent on their father. William will cease to be only when he’s Prince of Wales; that may affect their behaviour. And for Prince Harry, Camilla has meant his relationship with Meghan Markle has had an easy ride. Once, the notion that the Prince of Wales’s son might marry an American divorcee would have been huge — shades of Wallis Simpson. In the wake of Charles marrying his mistress, whose husband is very much alive, Ms Markle doesn’t seem such a big deal.
Which brings us to the real reason why I think Queen Camilla would be a bad thing. It would reward adultery, a relationship between two people married to others, which caused enormous hurt to their respective spouses. To crown Camilla queen would be to suggest that adultery doesn’t matter, that if you persist in wrong behaviour long enough it’ll be worth your while, at least in this life. A lesser title would seem less overtly triumphalist. Camilla is a mistress made good; if she were queen, it would be to diminish the residual value of matrimony. That matters.