Allegiance to duty in a realm of the capricious

The Kings and Queens of England
May 31, 2002

That the virtues by which the Queen seeks to reign are no longer sacred in her fickle kingdom makes her beguiling, says Jamie Camplin.

"No one knows from where they come or where they go, but they are the people, and to watch them pass is to see the nation pass." Little is said; their footsteps are faint; and soon they pass through the gates, "back into the night from which they come". This was 1952, the lying-in-state of King George VI in Westminster Hall, recounted by Richard Dimbleby. Had nothing changed then in 50 years, when this spring exactly the same scene was re-enacted following the death of George's queen - and was even described by sons of the same broadcaster?

Few subjects raise so acutely the historical pitfalls of "continuity and change" than the British monarchy. That it is ancient and has been historically significant is not in dispute - the oldest in Europe, only the papacy is more venerable among institutions of all kinds. Yet do we understand its role today the better by reference to the distant past?

The latest attempt to tell the whole story, The Kings and Queens of England , the work of eight historians under the editorship of W. M. Ormrod, suggests not. This is partly because of the book's somewhat unreflective form, in which (largely judicious and certainly workmanlike) accounts are given of each ruler since Anglo-Saxon times. Thus poor Edmund Ironside must have his separate heading, but the three-and-a-half lines devoted to his months on the throne in 1016 do not illuminate. There is too much ushering in of new eras and too little analysis of the themes the author sets out by identifying. These include: the political unification of the British Isles (a constant, certainly, but one now falling apart without the sanction of force, or even perhaps economics, to sustain it); an ability to create an English sense of identity from "foreign" dynasties - Scandinavian or French or Scottish or German (a battle won by the time of Elizabeth II, just as it ceased to be an asset within a multicultural national consensus); and survival through the right "mixture of tradition and modernisation" (the history of which, as Ormrod says, does not guide us as to the right "new brand" of monarchy for the 21st century).

Probably the most powerful influences on the monarchy inherited by the present queen in 1952 were the values the nation had acquired in the previous 100, rather than 1,000, years. Victorian society in practice included a strong element of harsh, materialistic, entrepreneurial ruthlessness, but the apparently antithetical values that were developed with it - of morality, steadfastness, benevolent paternalism, courtesy, respect, restraint, pride in tradition, duty - were to become a vital cement for a society whose head of state, the monarch, could no longer use the previously potent mixture of force and religion to sustain primacy. Those values, notwithstanding the political changes wrought by the first half of the 20th century and in particular by the post-second world war Labour government, were the consensus values of 1952. The poignancy - and significance - of Queen Elizabeth's reign lies in their destruction, a far greater threat to the monarchy than choosing the wrong "brand".

What can be said about the character of the woman who has been our sovereign for half a century? The Queen's golden jubilee has produced its own royal publications industry. Robert Lacey, whose silver jubilee volume Majesty was acknowledged by the monarch's most distinguished historian-biographer, Ben Pimlott, as having brought an end to "the sycophantic era" of royal reporting, is one of those who is proud of his ability to make you feel "you're right there". And, indeed, Lacey's new book, Royal , starts with the Queen having breakfast, her eyes narrowing and her jaw firming (but only slightly - this is subtle stuff) as she reads the newspapers after the death of Diana, princess of Wales. Although it claims important documentary discovery, using - for the first time fully - Princess Elizabeth's schoolgirl notes on "how to be a monarch", it is mostly notable for its author's industry over four-and-a-half years, including well over 100 interviews. It is not Lacey's fault that he is writing for an undemanding public - his publisher confuses George II with George III in its press release, not something the author would do - but this is essentially a story and not history.

Deborah and Gerald Strober, authors of previous biographies of presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Nixon, focus entirely on oral history in The Monarchy , also interviewing more than 100 courtiers, friends of the royal family, critics and others. Much of what results illuminates only the fact, itself significant, that many of those closely involved are not very articulate; these pages are full of "ghastly rumour" and "appalling shock", occasions that are "enormously moving", or - sometimes - "great fun". Unfortunately, "the greatest authority on Britain's constitution" is said to be "Geoffrey" Blake: one hopes that the biographer of Disraeli, himself ever courteous, would be amused.

By contrast, no "war clouds gather" and no "crippling strikes" are found in Ben Pimlott's The Queen , a golden jubilee edition of a book first published in 1996 as A Biography and now redefined through its subtitle, Elizabeth II and the Monarchy . In five new chapters, but with very little change to the first 23, the warden of Goldsmiths College, London, sets out not just to recount the history of the years since the prince of Wales's divorce but to put it within the context of the whole reign and ideas of "royalty". As a professional, he is more sensitive than the others to the limited value of the "vignettes" of passing visitors, which tend to illuminate themselves, rather than their subject: a particular problem of writing royal history.

Pimlott's mastery of the period, his careful researches and his considerable understanding of the country's political life make this the outstanding book on Elizabeth II. It remains unsatisfactory, perhaps because Pimlott does not seem to like his subject very much. He is sympathetic enough to the sorrow of someone who has had a "lifetime of excessive praise, and ridicule" and does not believe that the nation's sense of failure and decline should be blamed on her and the institution she represents. But he will not allow that she has done "much more" than what was expected; he does not approve of her (unpleasant) capacity for "amused appraisal"; and she remains "the little girl in the big palace, with her nose against the glass". It feels - not evidence, as Pimlott would point out - as if she annoys him; but because he is a fine historian (and a fair man) he cannot quite let it out. Certainly his conclusion is acid in the extreme, judged according to the rules of English understatement: as the golden jubilee approached, he says: "She was aware of what she thought she had achieved."

Does it matter, in the era of professional history, if the writer is out of sympathy with his subject? It may be significant that Pimlott's book has no contents page and no titles to its chapters. Writing contemporary history is difficult for the obvious reason that we lack perspective and (often) sources available to later historians, but 1952 was not yesterday (the current prime minister, with his presidential style, was not even born). A book that is to serve as a standard history of a long reign needs to make more overt - through its structure and its appraisal - the main themes.

We can nevertheless conclude something about the character of Elizabeth II. The criticisms of passivity and narrow-mindedness, of priggishness and philistinism, of finding it easier to relate to animals - notably dogs and horses - than people, are not what the reader of all these books should ultimately conclude. Everyone was struck by the Queen's dutiful demeanour from an early age. John Eisenhower, personal aide to his father, the president, met her in the war. "She was pretty serious, she took herself pretty seriously, was authoritative. I guess she never had a youth." She is, by nature and upbringing, self-contained and dignified, not someone to "get into the actress business" (as John Grigg observed), a believer in the (now-lost) virtue of reticence, a respecter of confidence, of unquestioning Christian faith, someone who finds it difficult and undesirable to express feelings (either to the nation or to her family). In the period in which she has reigned most of these characteristics have endeared her to one part of the nation, increasingly the older generation, and in the 21st century, if most of them are no longer celebrated as virtues, this does not begin to influence her own behaviour. A sense of duty, the duty to care for her office, is not for debate. If this sometimes appears to be stubbornness, it is also a great strength, a regal strength, one might say.

The question of whether media scrutiny - perhaps the defining influence on the monarchy during the Queen's reign - has helped us to understand Elizabeth herself is easily answered. Not very much if William Shawcross's Queen and Country , accompanying a four-part BBC television series for the golden jubilee, is any guide. It draws heavily on the findings of those interviewed for the programmes: more anecdote than oral history. It has not brought out the best in this usually trenchant commentator: "Soon the excitement built up. America was a huge success." As an illustrated account, it also misses an opportunity: pictorial blandness is its hallmark. Here is Churchill, the Queen's "favourite" prime minister, and then Churchill again, a few pages later, adoring his young queen.

The influence of the media on the monarchy began long before it existed in the modern sense. In the beginning, it worked for the institution: the progress of the "little princesses", Elizabeth and Margaret, was positively recorded by journalists and cameras. During the war, Princess Elizabeth spoke on the BBC's Children's Hour , and both her wedding in 1947 and her televised (after some debate) coronation seem to have encouraged a national mood of security, a reassurance in a world that was in most respects by no means confident.

Yet what had been unleashed was ultimately uncontrollable. When Crawfie, the governess to princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, sold her story to the Ladies Home Journal in the US (which sold it to Woman's Own in the UK), the problem was not that she made it up, but that - as Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, said - "something as private and precious as our family" was not a suitable subject for unauthorised exposure. David Attenborough once expressed the dilemma well when he said in effect that all mystique was destroyed once the tribal chief was no longer shut away in his hut.

There could be no hiding away in the modern era. At first, in the 1950s, coverage was respectful and positive. Even the famous criticisms of the Queen by John Grigg in the National and English Review in 1957, which caused such a furore at the time, were not truly significant. More so was the fact that, while the BBC blacked Grigg, ITN and the cinema did not. The new-style television was to be an intrusive medium. It could be used, as it was in June 1969 with the documentary Royal Family , but - as the years passed - not controlled. Secrets could not be revealed selectively. The silver jubilee of 1977 was recorded as a happy moment for a nation suffering from decades of decline, financial crisis and uncertainty about its place in the world. But the "exemplary family life" that The Times identified with the English throne at the time of the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981 was not likely to hold up to true scrutiny if the royal children appeared on chat shows (as Prince Andrew did), invented a royal version of It's a Knock Out (as Prince Edward did), or had unhappy or irresponsible personal relationships (as all the children did).

The press reinforced the message of the new media. From the 1960s, the telephoto lens and the paparazzi were permanent fixtures. The 1968 publication by the Daily Express of a family photo of the Queen in bed with baby Edward led down the road to pictures of the cavortings of "Fergie". Tabloid wars might function to support, or to ridicule, the monarchy; circulation, not respect, was the imperative. If 1947 had been the " annus horrendus " for the nation (as Hugh Dalton put it), with the wedding of Princess Elizabeth its only happy moment, 1992 was the " annus horribilis " for the monarchy, with apparently the nation feeding the media's frenzied revelations about the future of the marriage of the prince of Wales.

Was there an appropriate way for the monarchy to function in this situation? According to Sir Ivor Jennings, in The Queen's Government (1954), the monarch was "the cement" that bound the constitution, with "political functions of the highest importance". The history of the past 50 years suggests otherwise, beginning when Harold Macmillan blocked Rab Butler as his successor, "the biggest political misjudgement" of the Queen's reign (because of her passivity), according to Pimlott.

The monarchy, wrote Jennings, also acted to bind "the units of the Commonwealth" and the story of how the Queen has helped, encouraged and supported a community today comprising 54 independent states with approaching 2 billion people might reasonably be called a triumph. It is not a tale of perfection - how could it be? - and (more to the point) it tells us little about the future, since it has been so much a personal success, nurtured over a long period and unlikely to be repeatable in the next reign.

Jennings had another role for the monarch: as "a social figure", exercising important functions outside "the political sphere". In Walter Bagehot's classic, The English Constitution , the best part of a century before Jennings, he had already played down the monarch's political role, though partly because he was writing when the "retired widow" - Queen Victoria - was engaged in long mourning for Prince Albert. For him, the monarch was unchallenged head of society, head of its moral order, the exemplar of family values and also, through the institution's religious and mystical character, the symbol of national unity.

Does this analysis provide a key? Ian Bradley, in God Save the Queen , separates the secular from the rest and has written a polemic in favour of a spiritual role for the monarch, informed by his own Christian perspective, but also relating it to a need to reach deeper than material things within a community containing many faiths but little faith. Bradley is excellent on the historical background; after all, the anthem sung at the most solemn moment of the crowning of every English sovereign for 1,000 years is taken from the description in the first Book of Kings of the coronation of Solomon by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet. Indeed, Christianity was probably the single most potent force in making the monarchy, turning it from warrior rule to a long-lasting institution; but Bradley's attempt to apply this to the future will not do.

The reasons emerge in Nicholas Faith's A Very Different Country , which places the monarchy in the context of the "revolution" of the past half-century. The 1950s, in Faith's view, were an era in which an unquestioned social and political elite ministered to national self-esteem and complacency through centres of power - crown, Parliament, City, Oxbridge - which encouraged secrecy, insularity, narrow elitism (and "ghastly food"), excluding women, homosexuals, immigrants and most of the working and lower middle-class. Faith hates all this so much that Mrs Thatcher (with reservations) becomes his unlikely heroine, encouraging "the worship of success" and tailoring society to the economy, thus destroying her own class (the small shopkeeper) and the traditional family ("the only social unit of which she approves"), but also helping us to an unstratified, open society.

Faith is too personally involved in this account for it to be objective. But the history he recounts is central to a discussion of the monarchy. Once no authority and no institution could be accepted respectfully for its own sake - it is irrelevant whether this was a good or a bad thing - we were left only with (mere) celebrity. At first this seemed glamorous and exciting (the young Princess Diana) but - without deference, loyalty, service - the public mood is entirely fickle. As the prime minister found, you can invent Cool Britannia, but policies fade as quickly as personalities in a society that reveres nothing for its own nature, with or without spin. The national mood at the death of the Queen Mother in 2002 is truly the last fading reflection of the national values prevailing at the time of her husband's death in 1952. It is not instructive for the future.

Do the British people want a monarchy? The question is imperfectly phrased. They do not, if monarchy is defined in terms of its traditional role. They do, if monarchy is redefined in terms of celebrity - a "designer" monarchy, as Lacey calls it. But the latter is a capricious thing, at the mercy of public mood.

What should the Queen do? This question, too, is imperfectly phrased. "Modernisation" may have its place, but the matter is not one of particular policies. The answer would seem obvious to the monarch herself: she should do her duty.

And to do one's duty, in a society where that is not a consensus value, is really rather beguiling: sufficient unto itself.

Jamie Camplin is researching a history of the monarchy for Thames and Hudson, where he is publishing director.

BOOK DETAILS:

  • The Kings and Queen of England Edited by W. M. Ormrod ISBN 0 7524 1988 9
  • Royal: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II By Robert Lacey ISBN 0316 85940 0 and 0751 53224 X
  • The Monarchy: An Oral History of Elizabeth II By Deborah and Gerald Strober  ISBN 0 09 179415 3
  • The Queen: Elizabeth II and the Monarchy By Ben Pimlott ISBN 0 00 711435 4 and 711436 2
  • Queen and Country By William Shawcross ISBN 0 563 53786 8
  • God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Dimension of Monarchy By Ian Bradley ISBN 0 232 52414 9
  • A Very Different Country: A Typically English Revolution By Nicholas Faith ISBN 0 954 04764 8

The Kings and Queens of England

Editor - W. M. Ormrod
ISBN - 0 7524 1988 9
Publisher - Tempus
Price - £16.99
Pages - 288

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