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OPINION - After its hounding of Kate Britain needs a long, hard look in the mirror

The latest churn of royal commentary makes no sense. Writing that a princess should be left alone isn’t leaving her alone. It’s stalking with keystrokes, and self-deception. We’ve said too much already. We over-reached and turned a common case of family agony into a melodrama that squeezed anything sane, and wholesome, out.

If Hilary Mantel were alive, I think this sequence — I almost wrote scene, because fictionalizing royalty is as addictive as it is vicious — she would say this is closer to a fairy tale than anything that has come before. It has the brutality.

We have it all wrong of course: when don’t we? The fascinating thing about monarchy in the modern period isn’t them. They are, though we choose to forget this daily, human beings. Some of them are very odd human beings: why wouldn’t they be? But the oddest characters are not the family. It’s we who collude.

At Balmoral in 2022, after Elizabeth II died, I saw hundreds of people standing behind ropes in a silence so acute it stunned me, watching her three younger children get into cars to go to church. They were, of course, in mourning, and we stared at them to see how they took it: Mantel’s pandas.

How did they hold up? They were polite — the Duke of York acknowledged the crowds with a greeting, the Princess Royal looked robotic, functional — but I think even they were bewildered at the staring and the mad, hungry silence. What did we think we saw in them? What do we want?

That is an unanswerable question. I think of the end of the novel Perfume, when the protagonist, desired by all, is torn to pieces and devoured because something so compelling cannot be allowed to live. It hurts us in ways we do not understand. But that’s me. Even so, I am ever more certain that there is a connection between our now obvious national decline and our treatment of the family at the head of the state, which represents — as it supposed to — our relationship with ourselves.

We are depoliticised, fracturing, unhealthy, increasingly corrupt, and increasingly afraid

It is true that the online game played with a princess’s health featured only a small percentage of people. But it stole the narrative, which should have been studied, and compassionate, away. It was cruel, and unseemly. It hurt people. I won’t note the mistakes the family made: it hardly matters. Who could react appropriately to this?

We must take responsibility. But with a royal family, until so recently headed by an immaculate sovereign, we did not have to. I now think that Elizabeth II, witch-goddess in the petit bourgeois style, infantilised us because you can do things too well: that, and years of stability and plenty (if you didn’t look too closely and the edges, and we didn’t) allowed us to substitute an ebbing dreamworld with strange toys — horses, carriages, costume, Zadok the Priest — for a national consensus that is self-aware, and that works.

It's a truism that Britain isn’t functional. With the thunderclap of Brexit, we learnt that the country, far from being united behind God and flag and hearth and home, was cleaved in two. Political extremism threatens us; our public services are failing; we have barely recovered from the pandemic.

We are depoliticised, fracturing, unhealthy, increasingly corrupt, and increasingly afraid. Elizabeth II could, and did, draw a veil over this (“We will meet again” she said during the first terrifying lockdown), and she was exhausted by the end. The Princess Royal told Robert Hardman that when her mother died, she felt an odd relief: because at last it was over.

I don’t know what can change this: I don’t know what, if anything, can draw the strands of our country together. But I know what can’t. This. We may need to rethink constitutional monarchy, which is an adequate system as long — and this goes for so many things — as people behave responsibly. They haven’t, and we may need to let the royal family retreat behind their palace walls for the remnants of their sanity. Even now it reads like a fairy tale: we wall them up. Where that leaves the rest of us — who knows?

Tanya Gold is an Evening Standard columnist