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Yes, Ma’am

How the Queen redefined her role, with a little help from Sir Humphrey

22 October 2011

5:00 PM

22 October 2011

5:00 PM

Less than four months away from her Diamond Jubilee — only the second in history — we still tend to forget that we have the oldest monarch (85) and oldest consort (90) in history. We see a monarch who is reassuringly unchanged — and unchanging — in an uncertain world. It is an integral part of her appeal, at home and overseas. In Australia right now, the republican tide is out. Invited to field a ‘royal’ phone-in on national Australian radio earlier this week, I was struck by the consistent level of affection for the Queen. In half an hour, I encountered only one and a half republicans. It could have been Radio Royal Berkshire.

Yet what lies at the root of the Queen’s enduring popularity is not her small-c conservatism. It is, actually, quite the opposite. It is the fact that she has steered the monarchy through more change in the last 25 years than her predecessors managed in the previous century.

This is the Queen who dumped the debutantes, invented the walkabout and let the cameras through the door. She has transformed the Edwardian culture of the Palace and the Victorian structure of the royal household. She has stabilised the royal finances and moved them off the Civil List for the first time since the French Revolution.

But perhaps most intriguingly of all, she has quietly, beneath the media’s radar, rewritten the entire job description of the sovereign. She’s created a new manifesto for future monarchs; the guidelines which younger royals will follow when they take the reins. But the curious thing is that the Queen hasn’t done this historic and crucial work in consultation with an earnest committee of dusty constitutionalists. Rather, I have discovered, she has been inspired by one of our foremost comic scriptwriters.

For the last two years, I have had privileged access to the world of Elizabeth II while writing my new book, Our Queen, an insider’s view of the modern monarch and the monarchy. I have met those who work with the Queen (from her footmen to her private secretaries to her prime ministers). I have met members of the royal family. Granting his first interview to an author, Prince William has given me an endearing appraisal of his ‘incredible’ grandmother, explaining how she separates ‘personal’ from ‘duty’, how she has no interest in ‘celebrity’ — and how she helped him reclaim his own wedding guest list from officialdom (even if she was unyielding about his choice of uniform).

And, unlike his predecessors, Prince William now has an extra text from which to learn the royal trade. Every royal child since the Victorian age has studied the same instruction manual, Walter Bagehot’s English Constitution. It was Bagehot, of course, who defined the three key rights of a constitutional monarch: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn.
But Bagehot was writing for another age. As the royal family endured the 1990s — the decade of marital discord, the Windsor blaze, the Panorama appearance of the Princess of Wales and her shocking death — the monarchy was feeling as vulnerable as at any stage since the abdication.

‘We looked at everything,’ says a former private secretary. ‘We had to ask: “What the hell are we supposed to be doing?”’ The answer, it now turns out, was articulated by a man best-known for television comedy.

As the co-creator of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, Sir Antony Jay has helped to define a generation’s thinking on the dynamic between elected and unelected servants of the state. Yet he also played a key role in two important royal landmarks. In 1969, he wrote the script for Royal Family, the first royal documentary. To many viewers (certainly British ones), the sight of a royal family barbecue remains more vivid than the other broadcasting sensation of that summer — the moon landings. It was Sir Antony who then co-wrote the script for the BBC’s award-winning 1992 film on the role of the Queen, Elizabeth R.


But he also wrote a book to go with Elizabeth R. By his own admission, most people were more interested in the photographs. In the course of my research, however, I found that the text had a profound impact at Buckingham Palace. One former private secretary describes it as ‘the best monograph on the monarchy of our times’ (Sir Antony has form in the field; his 1967 work, Management and Machiavelli, remains on the Harvard Business School syllabus).

In Elizabeth R, Sir Antony breaks down the Queen’s constitutional role into ‘formal official functions’ — signing legislation, state visits and so on — and ‘informal official services’. These range from ‘continuity’ (bridging the uncertainties of party politics) and ‘recognition of achievement’ to ‘focus of allegiance’ and ‘custodianship of the past’.

He also suggests ten principal qualities which the public has come to expect of the monarch — including ‘political impartiality’, ‘attendance to duty’, ‘avoidance of controversy’, ‘conspicuous thrift’ and ‘emotional sensitivity’.

He then takes all these duties, sentiments and expectations and distils the position of monarch into two distinct roles. There is the Queen’s function as ‘Head of State’, of course, which involves all the rights and obligations ordained by Bagehot — appointing prime ministers and so on. But Sir Antony also defines an entirely new role — ‘Head of the Nation’.

Unlike clear-cut ‘Head of State’ duties, ‘Head of the Nation’ duties vary from monarch to monarch. ‘They can be done well, or adequately, or badly, or not done at all,’ says Jay. ‘They are the ones concerned with behaviour, values and standards; the ones which earn the respect, loyalty and pride of the people.’ In essence, his new job spec for the sovereign succeeded in bolting an emotional, human component on to the traditional constitutional role.

As the courtiers sought a way through the turbulence of the 1990s, here was a simple two-pronged answer to the question: what is the monarchy for? It was a definition which has since helped to shape the entire way the Palace goes about its business. It also chimed with the resurgence of what the historian Frank Prochaska has called the ‘welfare monarchy’, with the royal family at the forefront of the voluntary sector.

‘It was the mid-1990s and we were constantly questioning ourselves about everything,’ says a very senior official of the period. ‘This made sense. We had just never thought of the monarchy like that.’

And so the Queen and her advisers quietly annexed this new ‘Head of the Nation’ title. It began appearing in royal publications and government literature. Very soon, it was accepted as long-established fact. No one realised that Bagehot had been quietly enhanced by the creator of Sir Humphrey.

Today, it is the sentiments of Jay rather than Bagehot which open the Palace’s official introduction to the ‘Role of the Sovereign’ on the Queen’s website. As ‘Head of the Nation’, it explains, ‘the Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.’

Sitting in his pretty Somerset farmhouse, Sir Antony, now 81, scoffs at the idea of himself as a modern Walter Bagehot (whom he admires greatly) and tells me he is simply a student of human nature. His knighthood was awarded for his media achievements long before he wrote Elizabeth R but he was appointed CVO (a gift of the Queen) in 1993.He is adamant, though, that the emotional power of monarchy is as strong as ever. ‘It is entirely irrational to ignore the irrational,’ he says. ‘Almost everything about government is rational — paying tax, legislation and so on. But there is this irrational area — the Church, ceremony, pageantry. Ritual is hugely important.’ It is why, he says, a country like Britain is much better equipped to absorb a scandal like Watergate — or, indeed, MPs’ expenses. ‘We can have a terrible political scandal but not end up despising the state because it’s the monarchy, not the government, which links nation [the people] and state.’

The pace of royal reform, meanwhile, actually seems to gather momentum with the monarch’s advancing years. Palace hospitality has risen by 50 per cent in just five years. I have seen for myself the social revolution within the royal household, where staff now use the royal family’s swimming pool, where drinking dens have made way for book clubs and where the chambermaid of yesteryear is now a ‘housekeeping assistant’ with a degree (and may well be a chap). The principal old boys’ network within the household is no longer Eton or the Guards. It is the University of West London, custodian of Britain’s first butler diploma, a qualification designed by the household.

This whole transformation has neither been a formality, nor done through gritted teeth. It has all been discussed and talked through with the Queen. ‘She is far more accessible than most senior officers I’ve worked for,’ says Air Vice-Marshal Sir David Walker, the Master of the Household. ‘If you want to see her, you’ll get to see her.’ The Queen, he says, wants to be consulted on all new ideas. ‘She’d tell you if it was a stinker,’ he adds.

So, in marking the Diamond Jubilee, let us hope that the overall tone is not simply a celebration of longevity. The television researchers are already plundering the vaults of Pathé and Movietone for images of pea-soupers and outside loos to illustrate all those ‘life then/life now’ features. The Mountbatten sisters and the dwindling band of contemporaries are in demand for their ringside reminiscences of the elevation of a 25-year-old young mother to Sovereign Lady of a substantial part of the Earth’s surface. ‘If you compare life now, everything is incomparably better today than when the Queen came to the throne,’ Sir John Major tells me. ‘I hope that will be a theme throughout the celebrations.’ And those celebrations will be substantial. As David Cameron puts it: ‘The Diamond Jubilee will be much bigger than anyone expects.’

Certainly, as we approach the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession, there is an understandable urge to dwell upon the passage of time. We will marvel at the fact that a sovereign who started with Churchill is still going strong with a Pr
ime Minister who was two years below her youngest son at prep school.
But let us hope that the sentiment goes beyond the safe, time-honoured observation that she ‘has never put a foot wrong’. Let us acknowledge the ways in which, time and again, this deceptively modern monarch has put a very deliberate foot right — while cheerfully conveying the impression that she has barely changed a thing.

Remember that when you are hanging out the bunting.

Our Queen, by Robert Hardman, is published by Hutchinson. Robert Hardman writes for the Daily Mail.


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