It is 12 years since the Queen stood up at dinner and coined the expression annus horribilis to describe the miseries of 1992. She probably didn’t even have in mind the fact that her Chancellor of the Exchequer had just frittered away £5 billion of taxpayers’ money and caused thousands of homeowners to lose their homes in the futile cause of pegging the pound to the Deutschmark; it was more a way of describing her sadness at losing part of Windsor Castle to fire, having to endure pictures of the Duchess of York cavorting on a Mediterranean beach, and above all having to suffer the announcement that her eldest son and heir was to separate from his wife.
In some ways, the year of Our Lord 2005 promises little better than 1992. Once more, overborrowed consumers face higher interest rates and negative equity. A reluctant public seems determined, against all logic, to re-elect an unpopular government because they cannot conceive of any viable alternative. And once again the opponents of monarchy will attempt to seize the opportunity to take advantage of a big story involving the love life of the heir to the throne.
‘Seasoned royal-watchers’, as hacks stationed in the Mall are apt to be called, are confident that the Queen has sanctioned the marriage of Prince Charles and his long-term lover Camilla Parker Bowles, and that an announcement of the event will be made just as soon as the inquiry into the death of the Princess of Wales is complete. Should these observations turn out to be true, it will not merely confirm the prescience of our own political commentator Peter Oborne, who in August 2001 predicted that ‘Tony Blair may be required to announce a royal marriage by the end of this Parliament’; it will bring an end to the curious manner in which the Prince of Wales has been forced to conduct his relationship with Mrs Parker Bowles for the past dozen years. The heir to the throne has behaved like a teenager creeping to the spare room in the small hours to meet the girlfriend his parents reluctantly agreed to allow to stay the night.
Doubtless there will be those who see the impending marriage as an excuse, metaphorically, to storm the Palace. Republican commentators, themselves with mistresses and broken marriages aplenty, will clamber on to their high horses to moan about the indecency of Charles marrying a woman with whom he was conducting an affair during his marriage to the Princess of Wales. These will be the same republican commentators who regularly berate the royals for their failure to ‘get modern’. Surely that is exactly what Charles has done by adopting the flexible sexual mores of our time. Presumably, anyone who argues that the Prince of Wales’s divorce and impending remarriage makes him unfit to be king also believe that commoners who take the same action should be subjected to lifelong shame.
But it is not just republicans with whom Charles and Camilla will have to contend on announcing their marriage. Even among those who welcome the marriage it has become received wisdom that it should be a quiet, apologetic affair. It has been suggested that the ceremony be conducted in private — it would be quite possible to license a room at Highgrove for the purpose of a wedding — and that afterwards the bride be known simply as Camilla Windsor, eschewing even a minor courtesy title. A public holiday is not envisaged, nor are bunting and commemorative mugs. There is also a constitutional issue to be resolved. Camilla is a Catholic. The Prince of Wales, on the other hand, stands to succeed his mother as head of the Church of England.
But unless one is the Revd Ian Paisley, this is a relatively trifling matter. The British constitution is not set in stone, or even written in ink. This magazine has opposed many of Tony Blair’s tinkerings with the constitution, such as the replacement of hereditary peers with political placemen and the botched abolition of the post of Lord Chancellor, but the integration of a Roman Catholic into the royal family is one to which we would happily accede. The principle to be defended is that the United Kingdom remains a constitutional monarchy, not whether the king’s consort goes to mass.
Indeed, aside from our national tendency towards carping, there is no reason that the forthcoming marriage between Prince Charles and Camilla should not be a time of celebration. We confidently expect that it will: just remember how foolish the Guardian ended up looking over its prediction that the Queen’s golden jubilee would turn out to be a damp squib. The death of Diana was a tragedy, but once the preposterous conspiracy theories surrounding her death have been nailed for good, the Prince of Wales should be given the chance to do as every other Briton would be permitted — positively encouraged — in the circumstances: to move on. And now that every other retiring MP is pensioned off with the title Lord, why shouldn’t Camilla have a title, even if it is not, for understandable reasons, Princess of Wales? The adapting of the royal family to the ways of Her Majesty’s subjects is something to be welcomed and celebrated — bunting, mugs and all.