Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

Long to reign over us?

It's jubilee time again. What with the Charles and Camilla affair and Margaret dying, Bernard Misrahi takes a look at the personal politics of the Windsor family in an extended review of The Queen*.

Ben Pimlott has updated the biography he published five years ago on the Queen to coincide with her golden jubilee. (Just when we were beginning to realise that jubilees are really about cutting debt and redistributing wealth.)

At over 700 pages it is fairly long. However it does review her entire life in a readable way and what with all the political goings on, ten pages a year isn't excessive..

Betty Windsor — she is a Betty not a Liz — was not born to be queen. Next in line was her Uncle Dave who surprised everyone when George V died by taking the name Edward the Eighth. He was promptly disqualified because he insisted on marrying a divorcee. This, in 1936, was considered more important than his fascist sympathies, which Pimlott doesn't mention.

The Church of England allows partners to divorce but strongly disapproves. It does not allow the Head of the Church to marry a divorcee. This is one more reason for the monarch not to be head of the Anglican Church. The monarch, whatever his/her beliefs, is head of the church. Edward decided his relationship was more important and abdicated, to the utter consternation of his shy brother George.

Nineteen years later, Betty's sister Maggie wanted to marry the love of her life, Peter Townsend, who was also a divorcee. She had to choose between being a royal and marrying Townsend, and chose the former out of concern for 'duty', even though, being fourth in line there was only a slim chance of her becoming queen. Twenty years later, Charles really loves Camilla but she too is a divorcee. and he's next in line. He decides to settle for Diana, a partnership which, to those close to the couple looked unsuitable right from the start. So much for romance and marrying princes! Perhaps Eddie made the best choice.

Another royal theme is neglecting your children. When Betty was six months old Mum and Dad went off to Oz for six months. Luckily, they left her in the care of a nanny with whom, one presumes, she formed the close bond that babies are supposed to form with parents. When Charles was six months old, she did exactly the same thing with him. Not so long ago, Andrew and Sarah abandoned their daughter Beatrice. And they tell us about the importance of family life!

Did Betty ever have any peers amongst children her age? She not only never went to nursery but didn't go to school either, nor college, her parents educating their children at home. I don't know how this affected her, but it does seem strange. Not having regular contact with people your age who can treat you as an equal, who can fight with you, be rude and play with you and relate to you like a fellow human rather than a royal. At least Charles's boys went to a school where they could do what teenagers do.

While there was hardly any criticism of the monarchy in the 40s, 50s and even the 60s, there was criticism of how much the royals cost. When Betty married Phil the couple put in for a big increase —50,000 a year, a net increase of 35,000. Labour Chancellor Hugh Dalton objected and offered 30,000. What's more, he insisted that this should be paid out of the 200,000 the royals had saved during the war. Dalton shortly resigned (on an unrelated matter). Cripps, his successor agreed to pay the 50,000. From then on there was much talk about the Queen being taxed on her income from other sources, until eventually, the royal family agreed to be taxed, the amount they paid being kept secret. In 1974, the Queen made 140,000 on the horses -- as an owner, not a gambler.

Betty became Queen in 1952 in an atmosphere Pimlott calls 'unparalleled mindless admiration'. The Queen launched ships, made polite conversation with thousands of strangers and regularly saw her prime ministers whom she impressed with her in-depth political knowledge. Churchill, her first PM, over 80 and unwell was clearly unfit for the job. Should she press him to stand down? She avoided this unpleasant task. When a PM resigned in office she was left with the constitutional hot potato of having to choose the successor, which she certainly didn't want to do. It was better when Wilson resigned, but waited till Callaghan, his successor was chosen. Wilson could then go to the Palace with a one name shortlist for PM which she could gladly endorse.

Likewise, when a PM called an election, it had to seem that the Queen could actually choose to reject the PM's wishes, for example, on the grounds that it was too soon since the last election. It was extremely unlikely that Betty would refuse a PM's wishes, but bad form not to observe the protocol.

Protocol, always protocol. The Queen was lambasted when Diana died for not flying the flag at half mast at Buck Palace. As she wasn't in London at that time, to fly the flag would have been a breach of protocol. Under immense pressure, the protocol was changed,

So the Queen reached her Silver Jubilee on a wave of continuing public adulation (we republicans felt pretty isolated then). Even the punk band, the Sex Pistols, joined in the patriotic mood with their anthem 'God Save the Queen.' I forget most of the rest of the words except, 'She's a fucking fascist machine.'

The only openly republican minister up till 1977, or since, was Tony Benn. As Postmaster General in the 60s he tried to remove the Queen's head from postage stamps. Benn reported that Betty didn't object. Her courtiers did and so did Harold Wilson. However, since then, the Queen's head has often been less prominent.

The queen always avoids stating her own political opinions. However, she is seen not only as the queen of the UK but of the Commonwealth too. She has built warm, even close, relationships with African leaders ever since their countries became independent. When Thatcher confronted the Commonwealth during the 1980s over sanctions to South Africa, the Queen needed to say little to convey the strong impression that her sympathies were with the Africans.

Towards the end of the book, Pimlott muses on the future role of the monarchy. At a time when both main parties are ignoring the plight of the socially disadvantaged he wonders whether the monarchy might provide some charity. He cites Diana's support for those with AIDS and Charles encouragement of young people's entrepreneurial skills. Yes, maybe, but what an indictment of new Labour if it stands to the right of Prince Charles.

In 1975, the Governor General of Australia, John Kerr, sacked Gough Whitlam, the Prime Minister and dissolved both houses of parliament. What was astonishing was that he could take this extraordinary act without informing the Queen, in whose name he was acting. Pimlott explains that the Queen would not want to have been informed beforehand as that would have made her complicit with the decision. Ten years later the Aussies removed this power from the G-G.

Eight years later, however, the Queen was annoyed when the US invaded the Commonwealth country of Grenada without informing her first.

There was certainly more criticism of the monarchy in the 1990s, alongside adulation of Diana. Pimlott points out that much of this criticism was from the right - the Murdoch press, rather than the left. At the same time there was phenomenal worldwide press attention with up to a thousand journalists attending a press conference. Twenty three million watched the Diana confessional TV programme. Two and a half billion watched her funeral. Pimlott couldn't explain this astonishing adulation.

There was far more opposition in Australia where the monarchy was stripped of most of its powers before a referendum was called in 1999. Unfortunately, the alternative on offer was a head of state chosen by the politicians, not directly by the people. The Aussies decided they preferred the weakened monarchy to this scheme. Blair has threatened to replace the House of Lords with a chamber only a fifth of whose members would be elected. It is likely that however critical the British are of the monarchy, they would distrust most alternatives proposed by politicians. The demise of the monarchy is not imminent.

So what are the alternatives? A directly elected president as they have in Eire rather than the US or France? What do monarchists like about the monarchy? Do most of them care about the Queen's Speech and her signing the Acts of Parliament? Would most of them settle for the monarch no longer to be official head of state, but to continue much of the ceremonial rigmarole — a sort of show which the Queen's supporters enjoy?

You can be sure that this government will do nothing that is likely to be controversial. Let the debate continue regardless.

*The Queen — Elizabeth II and the monarchy, Ben Pimlott, Harper Collins 25

March/April 2002