Celebrating a royal marriage that lasted

 

Her annus horribilis seems a distant memory. The renovation of Windsor Castle after the devastating fire of 1992 has been completed ahead of schedule and within budget and Prince Charles has begun a gentle charm offensive with the press in a style not seen for many years.

Tonight, as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip celebrate their golden wedding anniversary at a ball in Windsor Castle joined by the heads of the royal families of Spain, Norway and Sweden, to name but a few, the House of Windsor is emerging from under the cloud of controversy and mourning for Diana, Princess of Wales. Although there is no doubt that in the months since the death of Princess Diana, the royal family has kept a low profile and taken stock of public opinion, a lavish party seems as good a place as any to begin the royal rehabilitation.

The public criticism of the royal family after Diana's death has diminished somewhat, although opinion polls will continue to question its role in Tony Blair's New Labour society. As if to answer critics the venue chosen for Queen Elizabeth's and Prince Philip's pre-anniversary dinner last night was telling. Dubbed "The People's Palace" after the newly-crowned Prime Minister, Mr Blair, held his general election night victory party at the Italian restaurant, Buckingham Palace booked the entire restaurant for the night.

The thought of Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip and their guests sitting down to a plate of Tuscan-inspired dishes sits oddly with the image of a huntin', shootin' and fishin' family - but at least they're trying.

Another sign that Queen Elizabeth is keen to put the family's mistakes behind her is the appearance of the Duchess of York and Lord Snowdon at the golden wedding celebrations. Although there is no place yet for Camilla Parker Bowles, Prince Charles's friend, members of her family have taken their first tentative steps in public recently.

The Sun described Prince Charles's decision to invite Camilla's two children to a film premiere this week as "a public signal of his continued love for Camilla Parker Bowles." It may be a stretch of the imagination to credit Prince Charles with a "spin" on this scale but undoubtedly his courting of the press in South Africa this month calmed the usually stormy relationship between Charles and the media.

A "touchy-feely" royal family has not yet arrived - would the British people want them to be? But Prince Philip referred as much to the openness of the royal family as to the "tolerance" needed to make a marriage successful when he paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth yesterday. For a man who feels more at home shooting pheasant on Scottish glens than the Royal Festival Hall or the Banqueting House, it was a brave move. And, in a surprising departure from the stuffy image we have grown used to, Prince Philip also praised his children for doing well in difficult and demanding circumstances.

However, while Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip hold a thanksgiving service today at Westminster Cathedral, where they were married in 1947 soon after the end of the Second World War, there is a cloud on the silver lining. On Monday, a former employee of the royal family was given permission to appear on the Panorama television programme - once used by the Princess of Wales to air her feelings about the state of her marriage and royal life - to speak about the future of the British monarchy.

Not only would "the firm" survive with Queen Elizabeth at the helm, she would not abdicate so that Prince Charles or his son Prince William could assume the throne. William Hill, the bookmakers, do not agree - they are still taking odds on Queen Elizabeth abdicating at Christmas - but public support for the royal family is plummeting.

The British Social Attitudes survey was published this week and fewer than one-third of British people believe the monarchy to be "very important". The poll was taken last year before the death of Princess Diana at a time when public opinion was largely in her favour post-divorce. The sharpest drop in support for the royal family was among the older generation. In 1983 nine out of 10 of those born before 1945 thought the monarchy was very important. Now, on her golden wedding anniversary, only seven out of 10 feel the same way about Queen Elizabeth and her family.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip will enjoy their celebrations today. And they must be allowed to. After all, half of all marriages in Britain end in divorce. Whether Queen Elizabeth and her family can embrace the future with as much hope remains to be seen.