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Our Queen

By From the June 2012 issue

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Her Majesty: The Court of Queen Elizabeth II
By Robert Hardman
(Pegasus Books, 384 pages, $27.95)

After her sixty years on the Throne of Great Britain, what is there left that is both genuinely new and also interesting that can possibly be written about Queen Elizabeth II? The answer, as this superb new book shows, is a very great deal, which is nonetheless somehow fitted into fewer than 350 pages of text. This is because the author inhabits that gilded world between Royal confidant—Prince William granted Robert Hardman his first-ever book interview for this work—serious historian, and upmarket veteran Royal journalist. He’s the man the Court trusts to get his facts right, and if anyone knows what makes the Queen tick, it’s Hardman. When 99 percent of Fleet Street hacks are jostling outside the Palace gates trying to pay for a snippet of (often untrue) gossip from a lowly third-footman, Hardman is inside having lunch with the Lord Chamberlain in his private office on the second floor facing Admiralty Arch.

The result is this ultimate insider’s account of how the Queen has done her job as sovereign, national grandmother, Defender of the Faith, Head of State of 16 countries, bloodstock enthusiast, devout Christian, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, “fountain of honor,” ex-mother-in-law to Princess Diana, anointed monarch, and international icon. No book I know captures her better.

The privileged access that Hardman enjoyed in the course of writing this book, for which he interviewed people at every level from every single department of the Royal Household, means that some of the courtiers he has spoken to have never before said a word to the media about what they do. From them he has gleaned how the Queen—who comes over as much more of a hands-on CEO than one might expect of a woman of 86—goes about her day-to-day life, and takes the decisions she does. For here is a woman with a sixth sense for the sheer appropriateness of things: The morning after 9/11, for example, she specifically requested that “The Star-Spangled Banner” be played by the Guards’ band outside Buckingham Palace. The message that she then asked her ambassador to Washington to give at the memorial for the 67 British victims—“Grief is the price we pay for love”—still strikes me as an incredibly profound insight into the human condition.

The prime ministers who lined up to be interviewed for Hardman’s book include Tony Blair, David Cameron, and Sir John Major (the one who came after Margaret Thatcher), Malcolm Fraser of Australia, and John Key of New Zealand. Four foreign secretaries told Hardman of the help that the Queen’s long experience gave them in their jobs, as did the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Shuttleworth, chairman of the Association of Lord-Lieutenants. Anyone interested in how to run a large, modern, global organization should read this book, as it is packed with aperçus about communication and leadership. For although she personifies Britain and has not put a foot wrong in her six decades on the Throne, the Queen is also the quintessential leader, albeit the least strident one in the thousand-year story of the British monarchy. In Madame Tussauds, all the younger Royals’ waxworks had to be moved away a few years back so that the view of Britney Spears shouldn’t be obscured; it wasn’t a fate that threatened Her Majesty.

FOR A COUNTRY WITH a history like Britain’s, constitutional monarchy suits the national temperament perfectly. The Queen is an effective brake on the ambition of politicians, whom she has the constitutional power to fire at will (and once did, to the hapless Gough Whitlam of Australia in 1975); she is an effective unifier of an increasingly racially balkanized nation (when her grandson got married in April of last year, 5,500 street parties were thrown); she is a Head of State utterly untainted by any party political bias; she provides a unique living continuity with the past, having shared the Buckingham Palace balcony with Winston Churchill at the victory celebrations in 1945; she has a global brand profile that any statesman would envy; she is an integral part of British national identity as it is increasingly threatened by the European Union’s ceaseless integrationism, the Scots’ demands for independence, and the difficulties faced from non-assimilation. She further provides a superb role model in a society that otherwise might take its social and marital mores from footballers, hairdressers, and celebrity chefs. Meanwhile, she is a power above plutocracy, the fount of an honors system that elicits billions in charitable giving every year. Despite all these achievements, she utterly refuses to be charismatic; that makes Britons proud too.

The world has 40 countries that are monarchies, 16 of which recognize the Queen as their monarch. According to a UN survey ranking countries by their quality of life, seven out of the top ten and sixteen of the top twenty are constitutional monarchies. When the concept of monarchy is routinely dismissed by British republicans as “infantile,” they often forget that Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, is an empire. Constitutional monarchy is in fact an idea whose time has come around again, but it needs someone who understands the process as well as the Queen and Prince Philip do. When they married in 1947, no fewer than 40 percent of Britons opposed her marrying a penniless foreign Royal with German blood. (He was so poor that he had to take a diamond out of his mother’s tiara as a wedding ring.) Yet at the wedding there was standing room only along the streets, and room on kitchen tables in the street cost a shilling a head. Hardman shows how it has proved a wonderful love-match as well as a mutually sustaining life force.

The Queen’s wedding presents indicate both the breadth of the British Empire and Commonwealth and its comparative wealth, even immediately after the Second World War. They included a diamond tiara from the Nizam of Hyderabad, a 96-ruby necklace from the people of Burma, a sunburst diamond necklace from the City of London, Dresden china from the Pope, a necklace of 96 graduated pearls from her parents, and a lace shawl from Mahatma Gandhi, which Queen Mary—who stood for three hours at the pre-wedding ball while in her eighties—dubbed a “loincloth.” Hardman’s profile of the Queen’s marriage to Prince Philip—who drove him around Windsor Great Park when they made their TV series together—is worth the price of the book by itself.

Yet for all Hardman’s superlative access and the number of the Queen’s private secretaries with whom he’s on first name terms—he’s almost the British royal history-writing equivalent of Bob Woodward in that regard—he is not oleaginous toward the Royals, as are several in his profession. At one point he accuses the Palace of “a myopic misunderstanding of public opinion” for the way the junior Royals cavorted around in Tudor costume for the cringe-making TV show It’s a Royal Knockout back in 1987.

The Queen considers she’s always learning on the job, which must help her not to atrophy. After she heard about a robotic milking operation for cows from a Scottish ice-cream manufacturer in 2007, she investigated the possibility of introducing remote-controlled manure sweepers and bovine waterbeds for her own cows on her estates. Most upper-class ladies of her age would be taking life a little easier after 60 years on the job, but this is the woman who, in Hardman’s words, “expelled the debutantes [from the old Court balls], invented the walkabout, opened up the Palace to visitors, tore up the rulebook on bowing or curtseying, and hosted a pop concert at 76.” Hardman argues that this “self-assured but intrinsically shy person who likes familiarity and routine—who is less confrontational than all her modern predecessors—has also been the House of Windsor’s very own royal revolutionary.”

ONE PERSON who has clearly learnt from “the nation’s grandmother” is her real grandson, Prince William. “She cares not for celebrity, that’s for sure,” the prince told Hardman at their interview. “That’s not what the monarchy’s about. It’s about setting examples. It’s about doing one’s duty, as she would say. It’s about using your position for the good. It’s about serving the country and that really is the crux of it all.”

Not the least of the successes of this book is that it has allowed this fine young man to speak for the first time between hard covers of the admiration that he feels for his monarch and grandmother. From the sentiments expressed here, it is clear that he has exactly the right stuff to make a first-class king himself when the day comes. For it will strike most readers that the Queen has instilled in Britain’s future King William V absolutely the correct set of values to carry the monarchy on well into the 21st century. Is it really “infantile,” as anti-monarchists sneer, for a brave young RAF pilot and his lovely wife to seek to serve others for their entire lifetimes? No, it’s simply idealistic in our rather selfish and materialistic age. But good luck to them, and also to the elderly but still utterly professional lady from whom they take their inspiration. Happy Diamond Jubilee.

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About the Author

Andrew Roberts is the author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 and, most recently, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War