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Private Lives

Toward the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990, someone was bugging the British Royal Family and taping their conversations. Three recordings are known about. One (unpublished) indicated that the Duke and Duchess of York’s marriage was on the rocks. Another, the Squidgy tape, showed that the Princess of Wales had a lover, James Gilbey, while the third, the Camillagate tape, recorded a torrid amorous conversation between the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles, a married woman with three children to one of whom the prince is godfather.

Virtually every nongovernmental expert who has looked into the history of these recordings has suggested the following story: the recordings were made professionally, were enhanced to improve audibility, and were then rebroadcast on frequencies which could easily be picked up by amateur radio buffs. They were broadcast more than once, and copies of the tapes were later left anonymously in various newspaper offices: obviously the “publisher” of the tapes had no interest in blackmail or financial gain. Fingers have been pointed in the direction of some hypothetical disaffected employee of General Communications Headquarters at Cheltenham, the security organization best equipped for the task.

The press has a motive for emphasizing the security aspect of the scandal, being in the thick of a struggle over the introduction of privacy laws. The government, at least in public, has dismissed the GCHQ mole theory: to admit that Sandringham might have been bugged is to go some way toward admitting that the tapes are genuine. There is still a half-hearted attempt to cling to the convention that nothing has been proved, even though, on the essential points, nothing has been denied either.

The security aspect of the affair, pooh-poohed by the Home Secretary, seems to me extremely interesting. For years people in Britain believed there were scandals to come out about Harold Wilson and Edward Heath; eventually we learned from Peter Wright and Spycatcher that these stories came from politically motivated members of the security services. They were fabrications. In this case the material appears to everyone to be genuine. The Sunday Telegraph, which of course did not print the Camillagate tape, gave an extremely helpful gloss on some of its obscurer contents, so that for the mere price of two Sunday papers last weekend you could work out exactly who was bonking whom on which great estate, and with whose connivance.

This was one impressive feature of the Camillagate tape: it opened the eyes of the lower and middle classes to what was really going on at night in our country. It explained to us what very fast cars, motorways, and great houses are for. While we are safely tucked up in bed, the aristocracy is driving hundreds and hundreds of miles for a boff or a bonk or whatever you like to call it. And listen to the beauty of the dialogue, as they contemplate the next assignation:

CAMILLA: …But I thought as an alternative perhaps I might ring up Charlie.

CHARLES: Yes.

CAMILLA: And see if we could do it there. I know he is back on Thursday.

CHARLES: It’s quite a lot further away.

CAMILLA: Oh, is it?

CHARLES: Well, I’m just trying to think. Coming from Newmarket.

CAMILLA: Coming from Newmarket to me at that time of night, you could probably do it in two and three quarters. It takes me three.

CHARLES: What to go to, um, Bowood?

CAMILLA: Northmore.

CHARLES: To go to Bowood?

CAMILLA: To go to Bowood would be the same as me really, wouldn’t it?

CHARLES: I mean to say, you would suggest going to Bowood, uh?

CAMILLA: No, not at all.

CHARLES: Which Charlie then?

CAMILLA: What Charlie did you think I was talking about?

CHARLES: I didn’t know, because I thought you meant…

CAMILLA: I’ve got lots…

CHARLES: Somebody else.

CAMILLA: I’ve got lots of friends called Charlie.

CHARLES: The other one, Patty’s.

CAMILLA: Oh! Oh there! Oh that is further away…

Further away? You mean, more than three hours there and three hours back? It’s the strength of their appetites that makes one feel so middle class.

Long before the publication of the Camillagate tape, Britain was involved in a who-gets-what scandal, as the marriage of Charles and Diana came to its acrimonious end. And it involves us individually, whether we like it or not, since who-gets-what (that painful stage of any divorce) involves not just houses and treasure but the Church and the Throne. If Charles wants to be king he can either not be divorced or he can persuade the Government to disestablish the Church of England. The only alternative is to change the Church’s line on divorce. But it may be that since Camillagate Charles has become extra vulnerable to any demand for divorce from Diana’s side. It undermines his capacity to be head of the Church of England.

But if Charles were to hand in an anticipatory abdication, allowing the throne to pass to his son, would he also be prepared to allow Diana a full role in the upbringing of the future monarch? Diana herself is the victim of a custody battle, in which her mother lost custody of her children because her mother, Ruth Lady Fermoy, sided against her own daughter in the case. Not only that. Diana’s family has long been embroiled in one of the most notorious who-gets-what scandals over the contents of Althorp, the Spencer family seat. So she’s had some practice, some experience of this kind of squabble.

Because the argument about the monarchy has proceeded, in recent months, by a series of non sequiturs (as in, “Because Windsor Castle burned down, therefore the Queen should pay taxes”), it is hard to predict what the next drama will be. But listen to this: According to the Daily Mail, Prince Philip is going off, alone, on a Caribbean cruise for a couple of weeks in March, on board the royal yacht Britannia—crew of 277. According to the Mail, which is not making a big point of it, it costs the taxpayer £369,000 each day it is used by a member of the Royal Family.

I’d say that family has still some way to fall.

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