Why the Windsors are more than a tabloid farce

June 19, 1998

Ben Pimlott tells Harriet Swain why academics should take the British monarchy seriously

When Ben Pimlott was preparing his biography of Elizabeth II last year, he ran into a former colleague. "I hear you've been writing about the Queen," said the colleague, as if expecting him to deny the malicious rumour. Pimlott nodded. "But does it," asked the colleague, pausing, "does it count towards the research assessment exercise?"

Royalty and monarchy have long been thought unsuitable topics for the intellectually respectable and even in recent years have been considered strictly for the tabloids, says Pimlott, professor of politics and contemporary history at Birkbeck College. They have usually been dismissed as irrelevant, kitsch and sentimental, with no impact on real life, despite being a prominent aspect of Britain throughout the century.

Only recently has this changed, following the death last year of Princess Diana. So big was the public reaction to this event that academics have had to take notice. But for more than ten years before that, the only way to write about the royals and be taken seriously was to trivialise them.

When Pimlott began his biography, published in 1996, he caused more eyebrow-raising for choosing to write about Her Majesty while being a prominent Labour supporter. Hardly anybody on the British left has ever written about the monarchy except for the purpose of attacking it. And generally British socialists have kept off the topic, because it was believed to be electorally suicidal to attack an institution so beloved by the public.

In the 1980s the fairy story began to fall apart - a combination, Pimlott says, of media overheating and a crumbling of the assumptions on which the public's relationship to the royal family was based. Suddenly, the monarchy was everywhere, but as soap opera rather than symbol of power.

Pimlott recognised that this did not mean it was any less important. The trivialisation of royalty meant something in itself and was worth taking seriously. The royalty phenomenon was not an incidental part of British life but provided insight into how we see ourselves and conduct our affairs. It was this that prompted him to write his book, even if, in trying to look objectively at royalty, he was being deeply unfashionable.

His aim was "to try to let the Queen live in my pages as a human being, while at the same time seeking to penetrate the uniqueness of being somebody with a destiny chosen for her - chosen not by herself, or even by her family, or by any kind of democratic process, but by an accident of history and heredity."

He was determined not to impose too much of his own political outlook for fear his central character lost the solidity demanded of a biography. Yet the essential thing about the Queen was that "whether she liked it or not, she was a political actor, not above or separate from the political process, or any of the other standard cliches about monarchy, but a participating element in it".

He was concerned with "the human drama, and even the tragedy, of a life so privileged yet so uniquely constrained".

Pimlott hoped to illuminate the way the British think about and treat each other, as well as bringing out some of the changes that have occurred in the British way of life. He was writing about the class system, concepts of empire and Commonwealth and changing notions of ideal family life - topics worthy of a place in the most stringent RAE.

Ben Pimlott is professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. His book, The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II, is available from HarperCollins, priced Pounds 20.00.

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