en 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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