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Michael Kelly: Why a slimmed-down royal family is essential if the monarchy is to command widespread support

Difficult year: Prince Andrew’s taste in friends and the Sussexs’ unpopularity have made for a tough year for the Queen
Difficult year: Prince Andrew’s taste in friends and the Sussexs’ unpopularity have made for a tough year for the Queen

By Michael Kelly

It hasn't been the best of years for the Queen. The monarch herself has been blameless in her conduct, but not for the first time she has been let down by her brood. In fairness, nothing could top 1992, the year she famously described as her "annus horribilis" (horrible year).

That year saw blow after blow for the monarch, who had made a virtue out of never putting a foot wrong.

It saw the separation of Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York, the divorce of Princess Anne from Captain Mark Phillips, the very public separation of Charles and Diana amid recriminations over infidelity and a devastating fire at Windsor Castle.

A big family Christmas has always been part of the Queen's marking of the festive season. No doubt, there was more than a little tension around the table this year, as the monarch contemplated the controversy her offspring have provoked over the last 12 months.

It's not just that Prince Andrew has brought disgrace upon himself and the royal family with his questionable taste in friends and car-crash BBC interview; there's been tension among the younger generation, too.

Meghan Markle's transition to royal life has been anything but smooth. Along with Prince Harry, she has been criticised for encouraging other people to adopt a simpler life, while continuing to enjoy the use of private jets for exclusive holidays.

The couple's exile from Kensington Palace also looks linked to what the Daily Mail described as a "rift" between Meghan and Kate. Their relationship is, apparently, causing no end of tension between Harry and William.

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And, of course, royal families survive by being ruthless and Harry has inevitably come off the worse in a conflict with the man who will one day rule, with Kate at his side as his queen.

All of this must put a heavy strain on the Queen. Even if you're not inclined to affection for the royals, you couldn't but admire a woman who has spent almost 68 years in near-faultless public service. The controversy surrounding some of the younger members of the family shows that her eventual passing will put strain on the relationship between Britons and their royals.

You know that the Establishment is in panic mode when the mild-mannered Archbishop of Canterbury steps in to ask people to give the royals a break.

In a set-piece interview in the Christmas edition of The Big Issue, Dr Justin Welby insisted that the Windsors "serve in a way that is extraordinary in what is literally, for them, a life sentence".

Undoubtedly, many members of the public would agree with the leader of the Established Church. But how long that would outlive the Queen remains to be seen.

Prince Charles has never been shy about expressing his personal opinions about society. Will people be as tolerant of this when he is on the throne?

There's also the fact that many of the younger members of the family appear to want to have their cake and eat it.

They enjoy the trappings of living in palaces at public expense; at the same time, many of them - Harry and Meghan, in particular - want to live private lives like other citizens, free from the glare of the media.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is right at one level: being a member of the royal family is a life sentence, but only if one chooses it to be so.

Most of the lesser members of other European royal families choose to live modest lives and take jobs in the real world.

Every family has embarrassing cousins and in-laws, but they're not on the family payroll. When the Queen sits down with heir Prince Charles this new year, one thing that will surely be in their minds is a cull of lesser members.

Monarchs might believe they rule by divine right, but their continued existence depends largely on public support.

A slimmed-down royal family, with the less-trustworthy and more-embarrassing members sidelined and earning livings of their own, will be a much more palatable prospect when the 93-year-old Queen eventually exits the stage.

Michael Kelly is editor of The Irish Catholic

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