By Riddell, Mary
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 133, No. 4716
Another perfect relationship crumbles and a prurient public picks through the debris. There is nothing new about such post-mortems, other than the venue. Once the divorce court was the national peep-show for private feuds; now it is the employment tribunal.
The latest example featured the Prince of Wales and Elaine Day, a former personal assistant who asked the prince whether talented recruits might aspire to top postings. Although Day claims she was later "hounded" from her job after complaining of "inappropriate touching" by another aide, there seems little doubt that her primary quarrel was with her boss-in-chief. Hence her decision to reveal the private memo written to her line manager, in which the prince bewailed her "political correctness" and the cheek of lowly people who craved high office. Faced with a rebuke from the Secretary of State for Education and public anger, Charles was forced to recant.
Some workplace break-ups hinge on sex. Others, like the palace tribunal, deal with an eclectic range of broken relationships. One recent hearing involved a sacked zoo manager who, upon being accused of stealing exotic animals, had barricaded himself in a flat with a wallaby and 14 tortoises. (The claimant won his unfair dismissal suit on a technicality but got no pay-out.) Another case, as yet unadjudicated, featured a former Eton art teacher who alleged Prince Harry had cheated in his AS-level exam.
The principal requirement for an employment hearing, as for a divorce, is a total breakdown of relations, plus a conviction that it was all the other person's fault. Salacious detail is a useful extra, and modern workplaces--especially those of the armed forces--often prove as interesting as the Duchess of Argyll's boudoir.
In the most notorious divorce case of the 1960s, Lord Denning was called upon by the government to track down a "headless" man in a Polaroid picture featuring the Duchess wearing pearls and nothing else. The pre-1969 law, which obliged betrayed spouses to supply proof of adultery, provided the courts and the media with regular, if more mundane, material.
The last Tory Lord Chancellor, Mackay of Clashfern, told me once that his passion for no-fault divorce stemmed from being forced, as a young advocate, to produce grainy photographs of Scottish matrons glimpsed through the bedroom curtains of one council flat when they were supposed to be drinking Horlicks in another.
Reform acts made marriage terminations easy and pedestrian. By 1973, divorces were obtainable by post in England and Wales, and now you can do it all by e-mail. Obviously, fraught endings still exist, but the gory details of Jude and Sadie's parting are now better chronicled in Hello! magazine. Ordinary people's disputes over the fish forks are no longer considered public property, and decrees nisi, obtained online, provide an even less titillating read than the European constitution. …