Friday, 6 January 2012

New books: Elizabeth II and her court

The literature on Queen Elizabeth II of Britain is enormous already in her lifetime, but the journalist Robert Hardman’s new book Our Queen, published by Hutchinson in September, is one of the most insightful so far. However, its title is somewhat misleading, as it is not so much a book about Queen Elizabeth herself as a book about the British monarchy and its workings in what will inevitably be the final decades of her reign. The title of the American edition, Her Majesty: Elizabeth II and Her Court, is perhaps more fitting.
While great jubilees often cause writers to present the era in question as one glorious triumph, Hardman is more realistic. He argues that the reign of Elizabeth II has “consisted of three episodes of sustained success and two periods of recurring difficulty”. He considers that some 2/3 of the reign should be considered “contended”, but that the 23 years of the remaining third to some extent could be described as “troubled”.
And while the statement that Queen Elizabeth “has never put a foot wrong” seems to be a favourite cliché of royal writers at this stage of her reign, Hardman observes that she actually has, although only rarely. The slow response to the Aberfan mining disaster of 1966 and the royal family’s absence in the aftermath of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 stand out as examples. According to Hardman, Queen Elizabeth has herself acknowledged to her advisers that she got it wrong on those occasions.
But this is not a book on her entire reign. The focus is set on the last twenty or twenty-five years, which have been an age of transformation for the British monarchy. Hardman has obviously benefited greatly from being granted access to some key players during those years, among them family members such as the Duke of Cambridge, politicians such as David Cameron and Tony Blair (interestingly, the latter highlights the Queen’s “total ability to pick up the public mood”), and courtiers who have been close to the crucial events of these years.
Among the latter category, Hardman points to the 13th Earl of Airlie, who was appointed Lord Chamberlain in 1984, as one who will stand out on the list of those he rather romantically calls the “New Elizabethans”. Lord Airlie had “greater impact on the mechanics of the monarchy than almost anyone since Prince Albert”, the author states and goes on to argue his point by charting how he set out to reform the way the monarchy was run and in particular how it was funded.
While the Queen “liked the status quo”, she gave Lord Airlie the permission he needed to go through with these changes while “the Queen Mother was continuing her guerrilla war against the modernisers from within her Clarence House redoubt”. Thus the monarchy was better equipped than what has been generally assumed to handle the momentous challenges of the 1990s, a decade which certainly ranks among the troubled times of the reign.
A major reorientation has occurred along the lines of the 1992 book Elizabeth R: The Role of the Monarchy Today, where Sir Antony Jay (of “Yes, Minister” fame) stressed the monarch’s role as “head of the nation” as at least equally important as the role as head of state. That role involves the duties “concerned with behaviour, values and standards; the ones which earn the respect, loyalty and pride of the people”, Jay wrote. According to Hardman, this was “a definition which has since helped to shape the entire way the Palace goes about its business”.
Since then the death of the Queen Mother has also meant that her daughter is no longer caught in some sort of limbo between the old and the young generations, but has herself taken on the mantle as “mother of the nation” with all that goes with such a conception. Thus her mother’s death has actually made her life in public easier, a courtier argues.
The death of the Queen Mother and the golden jubilee in 2002 marked a watershed, a courtier says: “Up until then, it felt like a reign of two halves – Act One: good, Act Two: bad. Then, suddenly, we were into Act Three”.
“For all her instinctive conservatism, this sovereign has steered the monarchy through more transition than any in modern times”, Hardman writes. He is of the opinion that the British monarchy “has actually changed more in the last twenty-five years than in the previous one hundred and twenty-five”. This is obviously not solely Elizabeth II’s achievement, but would, also obviously, hardly have happened if she had been unwilling to go along. “She is actually more open to new ideas now than ten, twenty or thirty years ago”, says one senior official.
Hardman’s account generally seems even and fair, but occasionally he goes overboard. As in the first sentence of the book, where he argues that “[w]hen the world comes to look back on the early twenty-first century, two events in Britain – just weeks apart – will be lodged in the collective memory”, i.e. the diamond jubilee and the London Olympics, which is surely to overestimate the impact on the rest of the world, or when he argues that Prince Philip should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Hardman has previously done the BBC television series “Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work” and parts of the book are clearly influenced by this in the way that the readers are served many “behind the scenes accounts” of how foreign tours, public engagements, state visits et al are organised. This is a bit long-winded and as this topic has been thoroughly dealt with by the TV series, the book which accompanied it and also by other television series, it might perhaps have been cut somewhat in this book.
Another note of criticism might be that Hardman, like many British authors, gets caught by the impossibility of reconciling the notion that Britain is superior to most other countries (if not all) with the idea that simplicity is something exclusively British. Thus the story of how the Queen’s car broke down during an official engagement: “With certain heads of state, there would be panic stations, much yelling into electronic cuffs, a public inquiry and high-level redundancy”. Problems sorted out, “off she goes in a convoy of two cars and one police outrider – the sort of modest motorcade which might be laid on for, say, a middle-ranking trade minister from the European Union” – or, in fact, most non-executive heads of state on an ordinary day. The fact that David Cameron’s car had to stop for red lights on his way to Buckingham Palace when he was to be asked to form a government is apparently considered something essentially British, with Cameron himself chiming in to say that “[t]here’s no other country in the world which has this sort of changeover”, which is far from true.
A rather large part of the book is dedicated to the Royal Household, which Hardman argues has seen “a shift in management culture away from the gentleman amateur to unisex professionalism”. However, his account of the Royal Household is so enthusiastic that one feels that everything cannot possibly be that marvellous. And when he enthuses that there are a housekeeping assistant “with a 2:1 degree in physics from [...] St Andrews” and a footman who is “a graduate in aeronautical engineering from one of Britain’s top universities” and that such things are quite common one wonders if it is really a good thing that people are holding jobs for which they are grossly overqualified.
One department which has been particularly successfully reorganised is the Royal Collection, in recent years transformed “from a dusty curatorship into a self-financing, world-class assembly of great treasures employing hundreds and viewed by millions”. Its director, Jonathan Marsden, argues that “[i]n terms of access and conservation, this reign has been a high point in the history of the collection. It will be seen as [as] significant as that of Queen Victoria”. Thus the modernised Royal Collection “will be one of the Queen’s greatest legacies”. This is a rather surprising conclusion about a monarch who is not really known for her appreciation of fine arts, but it does speak of a professionalism extending outside the areas of the monarch’s personal interests.
So what is her greatest achievement personally? Somewhat surprisingly Hardman suggests that it might be Britain’s development into a multicultural society, which the author argues that she has not only observed, but been part of.

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