Sunday, 8 January 2012
New books: A political biography of Elizabeth II
Marr’s book, which was published by Macmillan in October, is to a great extent a political biography of the British Queen. His stated aim is to “tell her life story, looking at the influences on her, and trying to explain why she does what she does”. This is done in a mostly chronological way, but the chronology is interspersed with short topical chapters.
The first quarter of the book deals with Queen Elizabeth’s life before her accession and the people the author thinks has had the greatest influence upon her, but also with the “remaking” of the British monarchy in the reigns of George V and George VI. However, this story is very familiar from other books and Marr adds no new insights. He also overdoes things a bit when he insists that Elizabeth II is “only the fourth monarch of a fairly new dynasty”, when in fact the dynasty has been the same since 1714 although its name has changed along the way.
The reign of George V saw several important reforms which strengthened the monarchy and widened its scope. Marr argues that “the House of Windsor has seen an unusually direct transmission of ideas and behaviour from its origin in 1917 through grandfather, father and daughter”. Most specifically this refers to the aim stated by George V’s Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, namely to “endeavour to induce the thinking working classes, socialist and others, to regard the Crown, not as a mere figurehead and an institution which, as they put it, ‘don’t count’, but as a living power for good ... affecting the interests and well-being of all classes”. This is indeed an idea which has been central also to the reign of Elizabeth II, but it ought to be said that her sixty years on the throne have also been hugely transformative.
The remaining 300 pages of the book deal with the reign, with a particular emphasis on the monarchy’s place in society and its relations to politics. The latter topic was well covered in the late Ben Pimlott’s excellent biography of Elizabeth II (first published 1996, updated edition 2002) and again Marr does not really have much original to add. It also seems that, apart from some interviews, he bases what he writes mostly on published material.
The story of the reign and its ups and downs is told in a well-written, accessible prose, but the longer lines are sometimes hard to find. As such another new book on the same monarch, written by another journalist, Robert Hardman’s Our Queen, is both clearer and more insightful.
Occasionally Marr seems to be too fond of the fancy sound bite, as when he quotes an anonymous source saying that Private Secretary is “the only appointment in the Royal Household that really matters a damn”. That this is nonsense is made clear from what he subsequently writes about the crucial role the Earl of Airlie as Lord Chamberlain played in thoroughly changing the way the monarchy is funded, which leads Marr to quote another anonymous source describing Airlie’s “importance as rivalling that of Prince Albert for the Victoria monarchy”.
“To a degree that has never been fully understood, they privatized the Queen”, Marr writes about Airlie and his team. Had these reforms not been underway at the time the reign reached its nadir around 1992, “the year of disasters could have led to a downward spiral in the Queen’s story – not the end of the British monarchy, but its radical diminishing”. But this quiet revolution is again more thoroughly and conclusively dealt with by Robert Hardman in his book.
“The Queen has been Queen of a nation in decline, and many would say her greatest achievement has been to soften and humanize that inevitable process”, Marr acknowledges. If he is at some stage critical of his monarch it seems to be in relation to how her beloved Commonwealth has “pragmatically accepted some brutal and undemocratic regimes rather than lose members”.
While stressing that the book is not authorised, Marr states in the preface that the manuscript has “been read by the Palace to correct errors of fact”, which leaves one with the impression that the both Marr and the Palace are weak on facts. To mention just a few of many factual errors the future Queen had no fiancé in 1948, George VI had never been Prince of Wales, Queen Mary did not just live to see the coronation of 1953, Prince Philip does not undertake state visits on his own and Princess Margaret did not live “with her mother at Kensington Palace”.
One is also left wondering how the Queen at the time Britain joined the EEC in 1973 may have “reflected that the Swedish, Dutch and Danish monarchies had managed perfectly well in the new bloc, never mind the reviving Spanish monarchy”, given that Denmark joined at the same time, Spain in 1986 and Sweden only in 1995.
Andrew Marr’s book adds little to our knowledge or understanding of the British monarchy under Elizabeth II, but may well be useful as an introductory read.