Sarah Bradford, the Queen’s acclaimed biographer, hails her 80th birthday, reflects on an astonishing life — and looks forward to Her Majesty’s ninth decade
The Queen will be 80 on 21 April, an appropriate time to reflect on the changes which have taken place during her 54-year reign. She was born in the difficult aftermath of the first world war, 12 days before the General Strike of 1926, when the more nervous spirits predicted revolution, and memories of the fall of the Romanovs less than ten years before were still fresh. Her grandfather, George V, conscious of the importance of popular consent in the maintenance of his throne, had abandoned the Tsar to his fate and sent his own sons to the factories and frontiers of empire to maintain and be seen to maintain the connection between King and people. Aged nine, Princess Elizabeth experienced the popularity of the British monarchy at his Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1935. She was ten in 1936 when the scandal of her Uncle David’s abdication to marry Wallis Simpson put her father on the throne as George VI and herself — to her horror — in line to accede to the throne. She was, therefore, not born to reign but in character eminently suited to do so.
As we learn from the notorious and much-maligned Crawfie’s account of Princess Elizabeth’s early years, she was a conscientious, tidy, responsible little girl with a love of horses and dogs — her ambition was to marry a farmer and live in the country. She had a sharp temper which sometimes broke out in fights with her younger sister Margaret, amid snapping of bonnet strings and cries of ‘You beast!’ But generally she was reserved, self-controlled and rarely seen to cry. She was shy and emotionally inhibited, characteristics inherited from her grandmother, Queen Mary, yet with a sense of humour, a biting, sometimes sarcastic wit and a gift for mimicry inherited from her mother. Her entourage on her Commonwealth tour in 1953 was surprised to see her, in full evening dress and jewels, imitating the Maori haka with the requisite stamps and grunts. And on occasion, among friends, she will laugh until the tears come.
Her role models have been her father and her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria; indeed her father liked to compare her dignity and grace of carriage with that of the Queen–Empress, telling his guests that ‘he often wondered if history might not repeat itself’. The King trained her for her future position. ‘Long before most people do,’ Crawfie recorded, ‘Lilibet took an interest in politics, and knew quite a bit about what was going on in the world outside ...The King would also talk to his elder daughter more seriously than most fathers do to so young a child ...It was as if he spoke to an equal.’ When her father died, the new Queen accepted her destiny with equanimity. Martin Charteris, then her private secretary, resorting to the equine similes popular in court circles, described her as ‘taking the reins with a firm grip’.
A similar phrase is often used to describe the Queen — ‘she never puts a foot wrong’. Even in her choice of husband, Princess Elizabeth inevitably did the right thing. Immediately after the second world war when Germany, the usual source of marriageable princes for English princesses, was out of favour in postwar Britain, she lighted on Prince Philip of Greece, who despite his Battenberg blood had fought an honourable war as Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten, RN. Having first fallen in love with the handsome prince when she was 13, she persisted against her parents’ fears that she was too young and married him in November 1947, when she was 21 and he 25. Their marriage has endured despite his frustration at having to give up a successful naval career in order to walk two steps behind his wife for the rest of his life. Being born royal as he was, it helped that he ‘knew the score’. In return for the Queen’s tolerance of his sometimes difficult behaviour, he gives her total loyalty. She appears impervious when he speaks roughly and is not afraid to tell him to shut up when she thinks he is wrong. There is mutual respect and support, a sense of duty and a determination to keep the show going.
One key factor has differentiated the Queen’s reign from those of her predecessors: the development of an increasingly powerful and intrusive media. When the Queen came to the throne as a beautiful 25-year-old in 1952, she was greeted with rapture, even adoration. Churchill’s friend, Bernard Baruch, called her ‘the world’s sweetheart’, and the adulation which she and her husband received was described by one less blinkered commentator, John Grigg, then Lord Altrincham, as akin to Shintoism. Criticism gathered apace after the disastrous 1956 Suez expedition, ‘the last twitch of the lion’s tail’, when on closer examination the imperial lion was discovered to be distinctly mangy. While Grigg criticised her ‘high schoolgirl voice’, the platitudes of the speeches put into her mouth and the ‘tweedy’ nature of her court (and was punched in the face by an Empire Loyalist outside the BBC for his pains), commentators like Malcolm Muggeridge and John Osborne diagnosed the monarchy as part of Britain’s post-imperial malaise. The satirists of the 1960s disrespectfully dubbed her ‘Brenda’ and her husband ‘Keith’.
Dutifully, the Queen and her entourage clung to the image of the ‘family on the throne’ praised by Bagehot and first established by Victoria and Albert, pictured surrounded by their considerable brood, and by her own parents, who were photographed with children and labradors (later corgis) on the lawns of Royal Lodge. Disheartened by Muggeridge’s opinion that the British were bored by their monarchy, expressed on television in the United States, the royal advisers collaborated on a film, The Royal Family, which was broadcast in 1969. For the first time, the Queen and her children were seen behaving like normal human beings — talking, laughing, enjoying a barbecue at Balmoral. The public, intrigued, wanted more. Having been invited to peer over the Queen’s shoulder in the drawing-room, they were soon wanting to invade the bedroom. There had been nothing of interest in the family since Princess Margaret’s doomed romance with Peter Townsend, when the newspapers had weighed in with their various opinions. But now they began to chase the royals for headlines: a harried, underage Prince Charles, when asked what he would like to drink in a pub, replied ‘cherry brandy’ — the only drink he knew. Princess Anne told photographers to ‘Naff off’ and danced on stage with the cast of Hair. Later, Prince Charles was photographed with various blondes amid speculation as to which was ‘The One’. In the final analysis, the Queen was to be almost undone by the very family image she had done so much to cultivate: her children and their spouses became media fodder in increasingly vicious circulation wars.
When a new media star appeared in the person of Lady Diana Spencer, the public took her to its heart. ‘In an instant you felt that both the monarchy and the media were united for once, they had both found their woman,’ media commentator Roy Greenslade said. ‘She was going to be a circulation builder for one and she was going to be a re-establishment of the monarchy in the private eye in terms of glamour.’ The people, having been invited to participate in the spectacle of the fairytale marriage, thereafter took a proprietorial interest in it, and as the marriage disintegrated, so cracks began to appear in the royal edifice. The media zeroed in mercilessly. The publication in June 1992 of Andrew Morton’s book Diana, Her True Story turned the public fiercely against the heir to the throne and his mistress as responsible for the failure o f the marriage, and the royal family were blamed for rejecting Diana and treating her with cold cruelty. When I toured Canada in 1996 to publicise my book on the Queen, I was frequently asked, ‘Why are the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh so horrid to Diana?’ While certain circles at court and around the Prince were certainly guilty of being ‘horrid’ to Diana, the Queen, aware as she was of the ‘three of us in the marriage’ situation, was sympathetic to her, and the Duke of Edinburgh wrote her a series of letters hoping to avoid the final break-up.
During the 1990s the Queen endured the worst period of her reign. The year 1992, the ‘annus horribilis’, saw the Waleses’ separation and the failure of the Yorks’ marriage, the outcry over the Queen’s non-payment of income tax, and finally the Windsor fire, when the public refused to contribute to the castle’s restoration. The Queen, utterly unused to such unkind treatment, even pleaded for understanding in her Guildhall speech that year. Five years later, on the death of Diana, there was more than a sniff of revolution in the air. Searching for a scapegoat, the public blamed the Queen for depriving Diana of her title and driving her out of the royal family into the arms of an Egyptian playboy, resulting in her death. It was then that the Queen finally did put a foot wrong; on her traditional holiday at Balmoral, far to the north of London, she failed to realise the strength of feeling building up in the capital until it was almost too late. The situation was saved by her dignified broadcast tribute to Diana and a splendidly moving state funeral, at which, however, Earl Spencer’s eloquent but subversive speech seemed almost like a call to arms.
Ironically, Diana’s death spelled the end of the most severe media intrusion into the royal privacy, her hounding by the paparazzi whose work serviced the newspapers being immediately blamed for her death. Yet, despite the media onslaught and the cataclysmic events affecting the monarchy, today republicanism has not grown beyond 25–30 per cent of the population, and the proportion of people declaring themselves monarchists has remained roughly the same. Since the events of 1992 and 1997 the Queen has regained her position in the people’s affections. The death of the Queen Mother and the Golden Jubilee in 2002 evoked popular expressions of loyalty which took most cynical commentators by surprise. The Queen has succeeded simply by being herself, a model of discretion and dedication to her country. Even last year, aged 79, she carried out 378 public engagements in the United Kingdom and no fewer than 48 official overseas visits. As a constitutional monarch and therefore above party, she is impeccable. People might surmise that she could be unhappy about the demolition of the constitution by New Labour but they do not know. There is, however, a saying that sounds very like the Queen. Amused rather than offended by Cherie Blair’s public refusal to curtsy, she is held to have said, ‘I can almost feel Mrs Blair’s knees stiffening when I come into the room...’.
Again, one can only surmise her feelings about Camilla and the latter’s determination to hold on to the Prince of Wales even at the expense of his marriage. The Queen is, after all, a devout Christian and her aversion to divorce is well known. She is, however, above all a pragmatist and dedicated to the preservation of the monarchy. The marriage of Charles and Camilla has regularised an embarrassing situation and the Queen accepts that. The rift between Clarence House and Buckingham Palace, between the Prince and his parents, caused by the War of the Waleses, Charles’s unwise 1994 television interview in which he admitted adultery and, perhaps still more, the Dimbleby biography which stigmatised his parents, appears to have been healed.
That is not to say that the Queen is prepared to abdicate and hand over the crown to her son. Voluntary abdication has never been on the cards; it is the sort of thing that Continental monarchs do. The Queen loves her job and is better informed than any other head of state about world affairs, let alone about domestic politics, of which she has experience stretching back well beyond any of her surviving prime ministers. Her knowledge of the Commonwealth, her own special interest which has recently taken on a new lease of life, goes back to its inception. She is exceptionally healthy and energetic, eats and drinks moderately and takes a great deal of exercise, riding out when she can and taking long walks on the hills at Balmoral. She is already the longest reigning monarch in Europe; it is even conceivable that one day she may overtake great-great-grandmother Victoria as the longest reigning monarch in British history.
© Sarah Bradford
Sarah Bradford’s book Diana is published by Viking in September.