A right Royal restoration

January 6, 1995

Huw Richards finds that historians are now beginning to take a serious interest in the much trivialised subject of the Royal family.

There is not a telephoto lens among the lot of them, and, while all are familiar with microphones, they confine themselves to the variety that picks up speech in the same room rather than the rustle of sheets at 400 yards. But some of our leading historians and political scientists are following the institution of monarchy with as much interest and dedication as any tabloid paparazzo or shock-horror biographer.

Serious historians and political scientists have not, in recent times at least, shown a great deal of interest in the monarchy. But, following on from Morton, Pasternak and their ilk, in the next few years we are likely to see much more serious examinations of the monarchy and its role. Vernon Bogdanor, reader in government at Oxford University, is very close to completing a study of the monarchy's role in the constitution. Ben Pimlott, professor of contemporary history and politics at Birkbeck College, London, has embarked on a biography of the Queen to follow his earlier, much-garlanded works on Labour politicians Hugh Dalton and Harold Wilson. David Cannadine, professor of history at Columbia University, New York, plans to move up the social scale from his history of the British aristocracy to examine the development of the monarchy. And Peter Hennessy, professor of contemporary history at Queen Mary Westfield College, London is working on a book about the office of Prime Minister which will examine premier-monarch relationships, and continues a life's work of attempting to unravel the ambiguities of our unwritten constitution.

So why the change? It is tempting to discern an intellectual trend sweeping through Oxbridge history or politics graduates in their middle age -- Bogdanor, at 51, is the oldest and Cannadine, 44, the youngest of the four.

But probably more important than a shared generation and education is their common belief that academic rigour need not equate to ivory tower detachment or incomprehensibility, and that if something interests lots of people, it is worth studying and explaining.

Few British interests are more universal than royalty. Ben Pimlott, as immediate past chair of the Fabian Society and Islington resident, is well placed to gauge "chattering class" attitudes. "People are fascinated by the subject," he says, "Whether they approve or not. When people ask me what I am working on and I say I am writing a biography of the Queen I am initially greeted by amazement, followed by a sort of pity and then deluged with questions about what may or may not be happening to the Royal family. It is like the weather -- you can't escape it."

Their interest tends to be of the mildly salacious sort. "When I did my book on Wilson people always asked 'did he sleep with Marcia Williams?' and 'why did he resign? Was it something to do with security?'."

As a biographer he has to take some account of the personal element in royal lives, given its impact on the Queen in human and institutional terms. "Anna Pasternak's book on Diana will probably get a line in my book," he says. But, while his Gower Street office is piled with press cuttings, he feels no need to scour the tabloids on a daily basis -- it is a standing joke with his wife Jean Seaton, a leading media sociologist, that her work means it is she, rather than her husband the royal biographer, who has the better day-to-day knowledge of royal minutiae.

This change of academic focus has, of course, a deeply serious purpose, triggered by the growing debate over the British constitution. Bogdanor argues: "Until recently scholars Dicey, Jennings, etc --frequently wrote about the constitutional position of the monarchy. But because the tradition of constitutional analysis appears to have died out in this country, we tend to be caught out when constitutional problems arise."

Prompted by his interest in third-party politics and the likelihood of hung parliaments -- which would suddenly make the royal prerogative of choosing the Prime Minister a real issue Bogdanor hopes to re-establish that tradition. "In a two-party system the answers are fairly clear. In a multi-party system without clear majorities, the monarch has a far more active role. This is where Jack Straw is mistaken in looking towards the Scandinavian monarchies -- they exercise much more political influence than our monarchy because they operate in a multi-party system."

Peter Hennessy talks of the importance of "restoring the monarchy to its place in the analysis of high politics. It is an important part of the ecology of our political institutions and you don't get a full picture without it".

Despite the deluge of royal material, there is little past work of real quality to go on. Pimlott cites Tom Nairn's The Enchanted Glass as a penetrating and original analysis and all four recognise Jonathan Dimbleby's Prince Charles biography as numerous cuts above the general run of royal biographies. Even Walter Bagehot, the ur-monarchy analyst of the 1860s, comes in for demolition by Cannadine: "He has been accorded extraordinary deference. But he was writing in a peculiar period for the institution with Albert dead and Victoria reclusive. He appears to have simply invented the three rights of the monarch which are still paraded today. Behind the glittering phrases there is a lot of inconsistency and confusion. He has become a sort of quotation resource for the monarchy."

Hennessy quips that "the divine right of kings has been replaced by the divine right of speculation". Hence his delight at nuggets of real information, such as the revelation, long-suspected but only now confirmed by the Queen's former private secretary Lord Charteris, that the Queen was unhappy about Britain's Suez intervention in 1956.

Pimlott, whose biography will focus firmly on the Queen's political role, argues that "the monarchy is much too important to be left to Andrew Morton or even Jonathan Dimbleby", while Cannadine believes that lack of historical understanding is one of the monarchy's current difficulties. "Prince Charles's current problems may in part arise from his personality, but the reality is that every single Prince of Wales has had similar problems," he says, a point graphically illustrated by the opening paragraph of his review of the Dimbleby book which ostensibly described Charles's current predicament, but turned out to concern the future Edward VII in the mid 1880s.

Despite their firm left-of-centre balance, not one of the four is a Republican. Hennessy says: "I don't think the radicals have thought through how much would have to be untangled and how much time and energy it would take in terms of parliamentary time."

But all note the need for change. As Cannadine says: "We have a diminished role in the world and a Great Power monarchy." Noting Prince Charles's recognition that Australia's current debate over the monarchy is entirely legitimate, he adds: "What he does not appear to understand is that, if Australia is entitled to have that debate, so is Great Britain."

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments