THE SPEAKER, IN A SEVERE PINstripe suit, makes a plea for the prevention and treatment of drug abuse by young people. Her speech is well reasoned and delivered with confidence. But toward the end, she turns a merry, mischievous eye on her audience of more than 800 media heavyweights. "Like it or not," she said, "I have been quite a provider for the media, and now I'm asking for your help." Of course the line gets a laugh, for the public obsession with the Princess of Wales and her troubled marriage to Prince Charles has provided a windfall for London's 11 dailies all year.
Diana's speech, her longest and most ambitious yet, made all the TV news broadcasts and all the papers. Her message was simple: the child who has been hugged and kissed and shown affection is less likely to demand attention by resorting to self-destructive behavior. But the tabloid press, always searching for subtext, heard the princess's remarks as a personal statement about her childhood, scarred by her parents' broken marriage, and her own marriage, marred by the rigid, distinctly unhuggy codes of royal behavior.
As a sorrowing Queen and her family watched the flames consume the halls and treasures of Windsor Castle last week, it seemed a cruel metaphor for the events of this past year. Britain's House of Windsor is under fire in 1992 as + it has not been since 1936, the year Edward VIII abdicated the throne. The notion of the family monarchy, a Victorian-era invention that accorded a symbolic and public role to royal offspring and consorts as well as to the crown, is on the brink of collapse. None of the four children of Queen Elizabeth II has been able to sustain a stable marriage. Princess Anne has divorced and may remarry, Prince Andrew is separated from his cavorting Duchess, and Prince Edward has not approached the altar or shown signs that he ever will. The scandal over Diana's secretly taped phone coos to a friend has been overshadowed by reports of a steamy conversation between Prince Charles and a longtime companion. And now, in what may be the severest blow of all, Diana and Charles seem ready to resign themselves to living separate lives, maintaining their marriage in name only.
Speculation about adultery, love affairs, "Dianagate," "Camillagate" -- the headlines are hurricanes buffeting a fragile, archaic institution that may not be able to withstand the impact. Each new revelation elicits more serious calls for the monarchy to be taxed, for a cut in its numbers who are paid a government stipend, and -- to entertain the unthinkable -- for the whole institution to be abolished. Even knowledgeable observers are writing off Charles and Diana as the next King and Queen. How could they take coronation vows, given their farce of a marriage, she possibly too high-strung to be Queen Consort, he exposed as quintessential neo-bachelor living the life of his choice and ignoring his marriage?