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Royal (Mis)Behavior

BY and large, the British love the monarchy as an institution. What they are tiring of, it appears, are the regretful antics of some members of the current royal family.

The recent BBC-TV interview by Diana, Princess of Wales, broadcast later in its entirety in the United States, may gain her sympathy, but it won't do much for royalty itself. Her public confession of adultery follows that of her husband, Prince Charles, and his appearances in public with his longtime mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles. The estranged couple have engaged in a sorry and unseemly public-opinion battle, which Diana seems to be winning, at least at present.

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The idea that the British royal family should be a model of propriety is relatively new (remember Henry VIII?). Its chief exemplar was Queen Victoria, who gave her name to the whole notion of public uprightness - a notion the world could use a lot more of these days. Neither her father, William IV, nor her son, Edward VII, met the standard. The 20th-century Windsors haven't done so well, either. In a television age, Queen Elizabeth II tried hard to promote the idea of the royal family as a kind of national model. She's now, unfortunately, paying the price for that.

What's changed is not so much the behavior of the royals. The public is simply less willing to tolerate this kind of carrying on.

The monarchy fulfills an important role as part of the national identity and glue that holds the United Kingdom together. It continues to play a significant symbolic, if not political, role in British life.

With all due respect, if the monarchy is to survive, perhaps the time has come for the British royals to consider two changes in tradition that have helped monarchies elsewhere in Northern Europe to continue and even flourish. The first would be allowing the royal heir to marry a ''commoner.'' This ought not seem so unusual in a democratic country. Had Charles married Mrs. Parker Bowles in the first place, a lot of grief - personal and national - might have been avoided. The second would be to make the first child, rather than the first son, heir to the throne. Victoria and the two Elizabeths have certainly proved that a woman does the job very well indeed.


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