The Queen has seemed a pitiable onlooker as the House of Windsor crumbles about her. But Rosalind Miles sees a powerful woman now galvanised to save the crownby / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
She is an unlikely feminist heroine. But she may be the one woman in Britain for whom the personal really is political. Four years ago, we owed the Queen a year-long jamboree for her 40 years on the throne. Instead, she had the “annus horribilis” of her sons’ wives’ scandals, and a dreadful fire in her favourite home. Last year these woes culminated with news, on her son’s birthday, of the “tell-all” Panorama broadcast. The programme was transmitted on the Queen’s own wedding anniversary. Next, she was fooled into a fake phone call with the Canadian prime minister by the prankster Pierre Brassard, whose earlier triumphs in presuming on the Pope and Brigitte Bardot shrivelled into insignificance beside this. And she was 70 on 21st April, for heaven’s sake! How much more can she be expected to take?
Now there is more. A new book, Queen Elizabeth II, by Sarah Bradford, brands Prince Philip as consistently adulterous, betraying the marriage almost from the church door. Philip’s “flirtations” are said to have begun with showgirl Pat Kirkwood, and include “a princess, a duchess, two countesses and other ladies of the society horsey set.” The Queen’s new image of deceived wife adds to the sense of a life unlived, a powerless cipher on the edge of all that counts. When a bird plummeted from the sky at her last shooting party and landed smack on her head, it seemed just another in the procession of dead ducks aimed at a helpless grandmother.
This is how she plays it; but in reality, the Queen has more power than people realise. Ever since the restoration, when Charles II returned from exile with his one big idea never to have to “go on his travels” again, the British royal family has followed his acute political instinct to play down the power they retain.
Even on a symbolic level, this power is awesome. More people in the UK dream of the Queen than they dream about anyone outside their immediate family. Buckingham palace has an entire post office to deal with the millions of letters she gets every year. (“What happens if the Queen wants to go to the toilet in the middle of a long ceremony?” Answer: “The problem never arises”; “My husband is under a death sentence for a crime he has not committed”: “The Queen regrets that she cannot interfere in the affairs of another sovereign territory”; “Does Prince Philip kiss you goodnight?”: “Her Majesty has asked me to thank you for your kind expression of interest in her and her family.”)
Nor is Elizabeth’s power purely iconic. The woman who has had a lifetime of political experience does not see her role as merely rubber-stamping the contents of official boxes. Her reign has often thrown up crises where her acts counted. In 1975, her writ removed the Australian prime minister from office. In 1978, she hosted the Romanian dictator Ceausescu to clinch an important British deal, thereby helping to prop up his tyranny. Her decision to dissolve parliament or appoint a new administration has more than once turned the political tide. Her unswerving dedication to the Commonwealth has ensured its survival long after a generation of post-imperialists might have let it fade.
The huge wealth and land holdings of the royal family constitute a power bloc unprecedented in any other developed country. The Queen is the biggest single landowner in the UK; much of the country still belongs to her or to her son. Add in the castles, houses, jewels, paintings, and investments, and it is doubtful whether the Queen herself knows what she is worth. (But we all know it’s there, like the rock under the earth, and in many cases, quite literally the ground beneath our feet.) This ever present sense of the Queen’s power underlies today’s constitutional crisis in which an “unworthy” man and an “impossible” woman are in fact King and Queen in waiting. The expectation of every true Brit is that the Queen will use her power to sort it out.
It now seems that she will. Her task is no less than to save the monarchy, an imperative she has followed all her life. Not at an intellectual level, for the Queen is remarkably unconcerned with the life of the mind. (“Unless it eats grass and farts,” Prince Philip said, “the Queen isn’t interested.”) But she grasps innately that no one but a woman, and the woman she is in particular, could keep the monarchy going in these days of galloping democracy and the death of deference. She sees clearly the political component to today’s mobbery and yobbery.
She bows to it up to a point, but cedes a battle only to win the war. She is skilfully managing the transition from a mediaeval monarchy to the more open forms required today. She is proving a past mistress of making herself more visible while giving almost nothing away. She has agreed to pay taxes without revealing how much, or on what income. She gains credit for accountability while still only having to account to a tiny handful of sympathisers. She gave the world a glimpse of her “annus horribilis,” while avoiding any of the details. And she now takes a leaf out of Margaret Thatcher’s book by appearing at national disasters like Dunblane, positioning herself as the mother of the country.
In that role, insiders murmur, HM feels herself to be approaching her finest hour. For there has always been more to the dumpy little dignitary than meets the eye. In a car taking the royal family to church one Sunday, a passenger was startled to hear the Queen shout back at a shouting bystander. “What did she say?” enquired Prince Philip. “She said ‘Bastards!'” the Queen replied. But if being Queen means having power, being a constitutional monarch means picking the moment to use it. This is the moment, and the Queen is using it. Her Christmas message last year registered a resounding and unequivocal “enough!” Enough of Diana, sadly, is the word. As a woman, the Queen has had a lot of sympathy for Diana, trapped like herself in a marriage with an unloving and adulterous man. It was not even as an aggrieved mother that the Queen finally moved against the woman who for years now has been painting her son as a dick-driven dork hung up on a mistress who’s the nearest thing to a horse. But when Diana publicly attacked Charles’s fitness to rule and implied that he would not succeed to the crown, she did not understand that the woman who has sacrificed her own life for that crown could hardly let it pass.
The Queen saw her moment, and took it. A hand-written letter, dispatched without the knowledge of parliament, ordered Diana to divorce even as the Princess was still congratulating herself on the success of her swinging k.o. Diana’s tactic had been to resist a divorce, knowing that Charles dared not move against her, for fear of losing what little popularity he still has. But the last thing she expected was that her hated husband’s little old mum would step into the ring. The interview provided the Queen with the opportunity she had been waiting for: an affront deep enough to act on. The order to divorce was an expression of her individual will, backed by her non-constitutional power.
Which is why, despite the hopes of Diana-lovers, the Queen will never abdicate. She learned from her father that a new ruler is always undermined by the survival of the monarch-that-was. She also trusts herself to do what has to be done, feeling her way forward into what modern Britain wants. Last month, she travelled for the first time on a scheduled train service. She is currently purging the perks of the past, saving on royal transport, and casually terminating Fergie’s use of the Royal Mail along the way. New finance directors are slipped into place, assorted commitments are quietly dropped from the list funded by the taxpayers, and surplus savings are tipped into a futures fund to be handed back to the government when the Civil List is renegotiated in 2001.
These efforts are winning the day. The history and economics of the British monarchy are all on her side. The monarchy is still the tourist ace in the hole of Great Britain plc, and there remains a huge swell of national pride in what is felt to be the world’s foremost monarchy. It could only be dismantled by act of parliament; few MPs would vote for it.
So Diana will be dispatched, and the Queen will trundle on serenely for another couple of decades, until the memory of any scandal, especially of a sexual nature, attached to the by then septuagenarian Charles will be beyond recall. When Charles divorces, the British will live with it; and in the fullness of time they will live with Queen Camilla too.
When Elizabeth dies, the monarchy will be safe. One thousand years and the blood of five royal dynasties all come together in her 70-year-old frame. Now they will flow onwards through her and her son to ensure another one thousand years of British monarchy in what the Romans called “the islands on the edge of the world.” When her time comes, she will know that whatever else, she has not broken the spell.