Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Diamond Queen, by Andrew Marr

I read this book -- a biography not only of a monarch but of a monarchy -- over Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee weekend, and Mr. Marr taught me a great deal not only about Queen Elizabeth, but about the role of the British royalty in general, or at least the way in which the Windsors have carried it out. Although she has virtually no legal clout or authority, the Queen wields tremendous influence, much of it simply by virtue of reigning continuously through good times and bad for sixty years. In some regards, she is an individual personification of a country, or more accurately, of a commonwealth.
Like it or not, she is the symbol of the authority which drives the state servants and laws -- the elections, armies, judges and treaties which together make modern life possible. For sixty years she has appeared to open her Parliament, to remember her nation's war dead, to review her troops or to attend services of her Church. "Britain" cannot go to the Republic of Ireland to finally heal a political breach that goes back to the Irish struggle for independence in the 1920s -- but the Queen can. "Britain" cannot welcome a pope or a president. She can. She has great authority and no power. She is a brightly dressed and punctual paradox. She is the ruler who does not rule her subjects but who serves them.
Marr returns to Queen Elizabeth's grandfather, King George V, who traded the family name of Saxe-Coburg Gotha for Windsor in the years leading to WWI, driven by the country's growing anti-German sentiment. The courtier who suggested the name also gave the dynasty its most compelling 'mission statement.' The royals, although wealthy, are not members of the aristocracy; they are something quite separate, and unlike the nobles, they must represent Britons of all classes.
Lord Stamfordham, apart from choosing its name, gave the House of Windsor its founding principle when he wrote in the same year, "We must 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." That was the job George set out to do, and which his son and granddaughter then took on. It is the most important sentence a British courtier has ever written, and remains the most influential.
This is a biography of Elizabeth II, but Marr reminds us that we cannot understand who she is or why if we don't know the history of her father's unexpected rise to the throne when her uncle abdicated. He gives us vivid stories of George VI and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, both as King and Queen and as parents. In addition to her great courage during the blitz of London, the late Queen Mother sounds like a hoot, especially after a gin and Dubonnet or two (her favourite cocktail).  
She was a flirt with men and well into her nineties enjoyed the company of a male with a raffish twinkle in his eye. She liked stories about "naughty" friends and relatives and recommended the stories of Maupassant about love and romance. She possessed natural charisma, shrewd intelligence and could be very funny. The ballet choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton was a favourite dancing partner of the Queen Mother's at Sandringham when balls were held there. She would gesture to him when she wanted to dance. Once, as he went over to take her hand, the Queen herself interposed and suggested he dance with her. You cannot refuse your monarch. As they twirled round, passing the Queen Mother's table, she hissed at Ashton: "Social climber!"
As can be said of her daughter, the public often failed to perceive the Queen Mother's real character, as they saw her only during formal occasions or press photography sessions.
Occasionally steely to the point of cruelty, she was more interesting than her later public image of a little old lady who liked horses and gin-and-tonics and big pink hats.
The present Queen has likewise learned to keep her opinions largely to herself with an astonishing reserve, and she has maintained this restraint for an astounding 60 years.
With only one significant exception, her marriage to Prince Philip, she has done nothing against the grain of what was expected. She has uttered not a single shocking phrase in public. There are no reliable recorded incidents of her losing her temper, using bad language or refusing to carry out a duty expected of her. People close to her speak of her wry wit, her talent for mimicry and her very shrewd intelligence, helped by an extraordinary memory for people and events. Outside a tiny circle, none of this is seen. She has a lovely, lightbulb-on smile. But, as if to save electricity, it quickly snaps off. (It is more often merely that she is concentrating.) Her most often used and most effective tactic is silence. Politicians say she is a mistress of the icy silence, the "you may go now" silence, the "I disagree" silence and the plain "you make the running" silence. Otherwise, she understates by instinct.
Marr stresses the difference between the Queen's influence and her actual power. In truth, she makes few decisions, and her overseas visits are determined for her. She is at one and the same time the ruler and the servant of the people. The elected government calls the shots. 
The Queen has no more choice about where she goes than they do. If  "her" government says she should go to Bulgaria or Tanzania, that's where she heads. Because, underneath the gilded icing of 24-gun salutes, exchanged Grand Crosses, dancing displays and elaborately exchanged compliments, this is a cold-hearted, contemporary and wholly serious business.
What is the Queen's impact as a diplomat? Incalculable.
So can it really matter that an eighty-four-year-old lady with her eighty-nine-year-old husband arrives by aircraft and does a lot of walking, nodding, smiling and talking? In this day and age? Well, it seems to. The UAE and Oman are monarchies themselves, and in Oman's case an absolute monarchy. In this modern version of the "great game", nations must play the cards they have; and Britain can play the Queen. Few of her rivals have a long-serving, internationally famous monarch in whose company sheikhs seem comfortable, talking horseflesh and architecture. In the case of the UAE, the Queen knew its founder, Sheikh Zayed, who died in November 2009. Her visit to him in 1979 is still remembered locally, not least because each schoolchild's history book has a picture of it. Three decades on, her arrival had been preceded by the visit of the Indian president. Given how many Indians work in the Gulf, and how closely the UAE follows Indian affairs, this might have been reckoned a more important meeting. The Queen's visit was a vastly bigger event, with large crowds and signs across Abu Dhabi, and much more local media coverage.
Really, though, she is operating much more like a door-opener, or perhaps a human assault vessel. She goes first, ushered straight to the centres of power wherever she is, and behind her, in an eager V-formation, come the ministers, civil servants, the military and the salesmen.
Queen Elizabeth makes a number of official appearances that makes me exhausted simply reading it. Not only does she keep the grueling schedule, she is unflaggingly and correctly interested in each one. Her sense of duty clearly outweighs her own personal needs or wishes.
One of her quiet successes has been that the more journalists observe her at work, the more they admire her phlegm and grit. Ann Leslie, a woman who rarely takes posh prisoners, says she gapes at the Queen's readiness to affect an interest in aero engines and foreign leaders when she would much rather be talking about horses or simply resting. On one sweltering day in Bangkok, she says, "I was watching the jet engine parts makers and they were glowing because they got the impression somehow that, although she was very dignified, and she's not going to gush, because gush is not her default mode, that she really did care about them and their engine parts. And I thought, this woman is bloody brilliant." That experience, multiplied, is the real explanation as to why the Queen has weathered the prejudices of newspaper proprietors and the storms of newspaper wars so successfully.
In response to the voices which perpetually question whether the cost of maintaining the British monarchy is worthwhile, Marr dedicates a chapter to the royal finances. The Crown technically owns vast and valuable tracts of land, but the revenues do not go directly into the Queen's bank account -- they go to the government, which in turns passes the Queen what she requires for the royal expenses. One can still argue that the Crown has no business holding so much land, but in fact it does, and until that changes, the land supports the Crown, and the excess goes to the public treasury. 
Once the revenues were simply collected by the Crown, but in 1760 George III agreed to hand them over to his government, in return for a "Civil List" payment from Parliament for his expenses. It was always wrong to say simply that the taxpayer funded the monarchy; the Crown Estate mostly subsidized the state. From 2000 to 2010 it paid £1.9 billion into the Treasury.
When averaged out, each Briton contributes to the upkeep of the monarchy an annual sum which equals the cost of two cigarettes.

Marr notes that the Queen, ever discreet and confidential, has never shared her opinions of any of her prime ministers, each of whom has a weekly audience with her. They, however, have unfailingly expressed their appreciation for her experience and wisdom. One of her staff voiced the value of her steadiness and continuity.
"She's seen it all before -- the ups and downs, the wars, the recessions, the recoveries, the good times, the bad times -- and she's seen the way different governments respond to these events . . . and she gives sound advice, I'm sure."
The Queen's impartiality also comes as a gift to the prime minister who cannot find it from his colleagues, even those of his own party. Her Majesty frequently plays the role of confidante as well as advisor.
The highest elected office is a lonely place. An experienced, shrewd and above all reliably discreet confidante is one of the advantages of constitutional monarchy, when it works, a blessing that other parliamentary systems rarely offer...
There is a crucial point here about the relationship between a constitutional monarch and her prime ministers. From time to time, the monarchy needs cover and support from the government of the day, just as the government of the day needs the authority of the Crown. To a large extent, they hang together. In Britain, their authorities are rarely inseparable. British monarchy is weakened by weak British governments and is given confidence by successful ones. When each week the Queen greets her prime minister, she has a vested interest in that individual doing well. Labour or Tory, it doesn't matter.
This book changed my perspective on the Diana phenomenon. Having got a better understanding of the Windsors' fierce protection of what little private life they have, I now see how barbarously intrusive the press became in stalking Diana, and how horrible the betrayal when she revealed private details in public. Marr points out that this sort of paparazzi onslaught was familiar to film stars, but the royal family had not confronted it before. This generation of photographers were basically mercenaries -- freelancers who would sell their photos to the highest bidder, nearly always for stratospheric sums, and who answered to no authority and held to no ethical standard. And yet, Diana naively believed she could manage them on her own, wielding them to her own advantage which often included portraying the monarchy as an obsolete, out-of-touch, fusty institution.
The Queen knew the monarchy had to both stand for tradition and also evolve, but in a steady and controlled way. In Diana's case, manipulating what used to be called Fleet Street was like a child in a pedalo trying to land a shark.
Marr likewise defends the Queen's decision to stay in Balmoral with her grandsons in the immediate aftermath of Diana's death. She was comforting William and Harry in a safe place, away from the relentless media, which they would all have to face soon enough. Why did that seem like a bad decision at the time? Evidently people wanted her to make a formal statement, or to grieve with the young princes in a more public way. The Diana years seem to have convinced Britons that the royal family should conduct its life like a reality television show.

Marr believes that William and Kate are starting their marriage on much more solid footing than his parents had, and it's hard to disagree. I would like to think that royal-watchers also learned from the tragedy of Diana's marriage and death and will allow the younger couple more privacy and respect.
These were people at ease in their skins, the same age, who had met at what they would call 'Uni' and who had lived together -- in what used to be called Sin but is now known as North Wales. They had split up and made up. At twenty-nine, Kate Middleton was old for a royal bride -- nearly a decade older than Diana had been -- and she would face the inevitable demands to produce an heir quickly. But that extra experience of life is a golden treasure, and she seems already to have the toughness, savoir-vivre and staying power that Diana Spencer had struggled to find.
Will Prince Charles take the throne, and if so, what type of monarchy will it be then? Although the Queen either cannot or will not express her personal opinions on public matters, Charles certainly has, especially when they concern the environment and architecture. The constitution is vague in its definition of the role and limitations of the monarch, which begs the question: Would Charles reject the throne because he agrees that the King must remain neutral? Or would he become a vocal, opinionated ruler?

It astonishes me that the Queen is still working so devotedly at age 85. As Marr points out, if she were confronted with the Elizabeth II's schedule, Queen Victoria would have reached for the smelling salts. When Her Majesty does leave the throne, I will grieve and more so for having read this book. I had a vague admiration for her before but a deep and profound one now. The woman is a marvel.

1 comment:

  1. She's useful, but I don't think we should support the other royals. Bunch of wastrels and hangers-on.


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