LONDON – King Charles or King William? Royal wedding bells have reignited the debate over whether Prince Charles should step aside to let his more popular son William be king.
Many are pushing the idea as the nation buzzes over the announcement of William's engagement to longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton. They argue that Charles' standing suffered irreparable harm when his marriage to Princess Diana fell apart and seamy details of his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles went public.
Others say he is, at 62, simply too old to start an effective reign after his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, dies. It's more than an academic question: the queen is 84 years old, albeit in seemingly excellent health.
There's little question who'd win a popularity contest between the aging prince, who has alienated many Britons, and the charismatic young man who reminds many of his late mother, Diana. And Camilla, whom Charles married eight years after Diana's death, is not loved by the public, while William's fiancee, Kate Middleton, is cresting in popularity.
So perhaps it's surprising that many Britons seem to prefer to leave the line of succession as it stands.
"Why change the rules now?" said Henrietta Jones, 64, a retiree. "William has to wait his turn just like everyone before him. I think Charles really does have what it takes to be king and I think he honestly deserves it."
But she admitted a certain ambivalence about Charles and his prospects as monarch: "Honestly, he is who he is and we have to deal with that."
The support for leaving the established order in place reflects a go-slow approach to change and modernization in Britain, where reforms of traditional institutions like the House of Lords have proceeded slowly. Centuries of tradition suggest Charles should be next on the throne and his would-be subjects seem unwilling to challenge that despite his marital misadventures.
The public is less forgiving in its attitude toward Camilla. She is still seen by some as the "other woman" in the ill-fated Charles and Diana fairy tale. Charles' suggestion, made in a U.S. television interview broadcast Friday, that she might one day take the title of queen — something many in Britain oppose — was front page news in the British tabloids Saturday.
Constitutional experts like professor and author Vernon Bogdanor point out that even if Charles were extremely unpopular there is no easy way to alter the line of succession, which is not designed to bend to public opinion or respond to the whims of tabloid newspaper editors.
There is no precedent in modern British history of a would-be king stepping down or being passed over so his son could accede to the throne.
"People often talk about that possibility, but we live in a parliamentary monarchy and any arrangement to change the succession has to go through Parliament, not just in Britain, but in other parliaments, including Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and others," he said.
"You can't just decide to skip a generation, it's not going to happen."
He said altering the succession would undermine the principle of constitutional monarchy, which is based on the concept that determining who ascends to the throne is not a matter of individual choice.
"It would raise the argument of who is best suited to be head of state, which having a constitutional monarchy avoids," he said, pointing out that when King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 so that he could marry Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee, that decision required the approval of Parliament.
Current rules of succession are based on a series of constitutional developments in the 17th and 18th centuries, including the 1689 Bill of Rights and the 1701 Act of Settlement that, among other things, confirms Parliament's role in setting succession policy.
There is little doubt that Britain's unruly tabloid newspaper editors would prefer to have a young king with a chic, photogenic queen, but the decision is not in their hands, even if they can produce unscientific call-in surveys suggesting that William is "the peoples' choice."
If the queen wanted the throne to go straight to her grandson rather than her son — and there has been no indication whatsoever that this is the case — succession rules mean that she would not have the power to make that happen unilaterally.
Such a decision would also involve British "realms" — places as diverse as Canada and the Tuvalu islands in the Pacific — where the queen is the nominal head of state. Any change in the succession procedures would have a direct impact on those realms because it would mean that William, not Charles, would next assume that role.
Still, some Britons believe the monarchy would be reinvigorated by having a youthful king untarnished by scandal when the queen's reign is over.
"William would make a much better king," said social worker Kayla Healey, 25, from Brighton on Britain's south coast. "I understand that the rule of succession is a long-standing tradition in our monarchy, but these are modern times and it makes more sense to have a modern succession."
Like many, she feels Charles' personal life has sullied his reputation and raised questions about his fitness to be king.
"Charles had messed up so many times," she said. "I mean, look at poor Diana. I just don't think his head is in the right place."
Gillian Smith in London contributed to this report.