A little life that was history made flesh: Her reign bestrode the Jet Age, the Space Age and the Digital Age. ROBERT HARDMAN says it was her superhuman sense of duty that united our kingdom as it changed beyond all recognition
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Monarchs, if they have enjoyed particular significance, are sometimes accorded the honour of an ‘age’. Victoria, Edward VII, the Georges – their ‘ages’ would all come to define not just a period of time but a culture, a mindset, even a style of architecture.
But history will note that there was one sovereign whose reign defied any such categorisation. Because the reign of Queen Elizabeth II simply spanned too much.
Whole eras came and went on her watch. She had steered her nation through the Jet Age, on through the Space Age and was well into the Digital Age when her unsurpassed stewardship of the Crown came to an end.
It is an extraordinary statistic that more than half the nations on Earth today did not exist in their present form when she came to the throne. In Britain, we had long been so used to this utterly dependable constant in all our lives that we had almost come to take her for granted.
Elsewhere, however, Queen Elizabeth II represented stability on a staggering, enviable scale. Her coronation would predate their constitutions, their national anthems, their flags and their currencies. She was history made flesh.
ROBERT HARDMAN: Whole eras came and went on her watch. She had steered her nation through the Jet Age, on through the Space Age and was well into the Digital Age when her unsurpassed stewardship of the Crown came to an end. Here is the Queen aged two.
When she arrived in many countries, children would be astonished that they were waving their flags at someone their parents and grandparents had turned out to see when they were children.
She got to know the central players in conflicts across three centuries. She was the last head of state on today’s global stage to have worn uniform in the Second World War. She grew up in a Forces family with a father who had served in the First.
During her first tour of Australia, she would attend reunions of veterans of the Boer War who had fought for her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria. The Korean War was under way when she came to the throne. She would reign through the Cold War, the Falklands War, two Gulf Wars, the ‘war on terror’ and Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
In cultural terms, she would see it all. By happy coincidence, the same year that she came to the throne, the music charts began in Britain. The very first number one would be Here In My Heart by Al Martino, ahead of Vera Lynn, Max Bygraves and Frankie Laine among others.
The Queen would reign through mods and rockers, flower power, rock, pop, punk, funk, disco, hip-hop and grime. The star turns would come and go at the Royal Variety performance as they went in and out of fashion. But the real star of the show, seated in the royal box, never went out of fashion because she was never in it in the first place. She defied it.
And therein lay perhaps her two greatest attributes – her sense of duty and the sense of continuity which prevailed all through her reign. Whatever the crisis – personal, familial, national or global – Elizabeth II was the embodiment of the old wartime adage, ‘keep calm and carry on’.
When others might have thrown in the towel during the dark days of the Nineties – the 1992 ‘annus horribilis’ of separations and the Windsor fire, and then the brickbats after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales – the Queen got on with the job.
When Britain found itself without a government for several days after the 2010 election, and the coalition had yet to take shape, there was no sense of panic. The financial markets and the institutions carried on. The state simply went about its business, safe in the knowledge that the head of state was steadfast.
Queen Elizabeth II (pictured as a young princess in 1942) represented stability on a staggering, enviable scale
In times of uncertainty, there was always a subliminal message of reassurance in the sight of the Queen on a walkabout in Derby or pinning an MBE on a Scoutmaster.
One well-known British political commentator, whose family had come to Britain as refugees, liked to quote his grandmother’s wise maxim: ‘As long as the Queen is safe in her palace, I’m safe in my flat in Hendon.’ But all this would rest on far more than stoicism and longevity. For this unchanging, utterly unspun world figure would actually change the institution around her more than any monarch in 100 years.
Not even George V’s creation of the House of Windsor, to replace the Germanic House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha at the height of the First World War, was as radical as the internal revolution that his granddaughter would bring about.
The other great Queen of modern history, Victoria, would do her best to withdraw from an ever-changing world. Elizabeth II would always ensure that she moved with it.
At the start of her reign, aged just 25 and as shocked as anyone by the death of her beloved father, she was keen to do everything much as George VI had done so. It was not just down to a sense of filial piety. She was always sensitive to the feelings of the newly bereaved Queen Mother.
There would be nods to the changing face of post-war society, such as discontinuing ‘presentations at court’ for debutantes and welcoming a photographer in to the family – Princess Margaret’s fiance, Antony Armstrong-Jones. But the tone and style of the royal machine were much the same.
The gap widened sharply as the Sixties unfolded. Television, originally acquired by so many families in order to watch the coronation, started to become less deferential. Satire was creeping on to the airwaves and gleefully attacking the scandal-prone Conservative government. The monarchy soon found itself in the firing line too, inextricably associated with the Tory-ancien regime.
And when the new Labour government of Harold Wilson came to power, there were many within its ranks who believed that the days of a hereditary head of state were – or should be – numbered. One Commons committee would even talk of putting some members of the Royal Family on salaries and sacking the rest.
As the radical protest movements of the late Sixties were in full voice, the Queen took a deep breath. In 1968, cameras were allowed inside the Royal Household to record the family at work and play over a whole year.
Her coronation (1953) would predate their constitutions, their national anthems, their flags and their currencies. She was history made flesh
The resulting documentary, Royal Family, was broadcast in 1969. It enthralled the country every bit as much as that year’s other big story – man landing on the Moon.
But there was more. The investiture of the Prince of Wales at Carnarvon Castle became the first made-for-television event in royal history. The monarchy was not necessarily ‘with it’, let alone ‘cool’. But to the large majority of the British, the monarchy seemed relevant, reinvigorated and something to be proud of. The Seventies would be a dismal decade for the economy and social cohesion but the Silver Jubilee of 1977 would reinforce the Queen’s role as a benign, uniting force in a country with increasingly little to be proud of.
The royal weddings of the Eighties, and the arrival of royal grandchildren, saw the monarchy’s standing rise ever higher. And if the glamorous Prince and Princess of Wales were grabbing more of the limelight than the dutiful Queen and Prince Philip, so be it. If Margaret Thatcher, rather than the Monarch, was the leading lady as Britain marked victory in the Falklands War, never mind.
If the Queen Mother grew ever more embedded in the national psyche as ‘the nation’s favourite grandmother’, her more serious, managerial elder daughter wasn’t bothered. It was the sovereign who quietly underpinned Britain’s restored pre-eminence in the world, whether riding with US President Ronald Reagan at Windsor or becoming the first British monarch to visit China.
Princess Elizabeth was formally proclaimed Queen on February 8, 1952. She was crowned in Westminster Abbey (pictured) on June 2, 1953 – by coincidence the same day a joyous nation learned a Commonwealth team had conquered Mount Everest
And when the younger royal generation started to attract increasingly hostile reviews, the Queen was there to hold the show together.
Prince Edward’s ill-fated if well-intentioned TV charity gameshow, It’s A Royal Knockout, in 1987, gave fresh ammunition to those who mocked the monarchy as a celebrity soap opera.
The gradual collapse of the marriages of the Queen’s other three children culminated in the same year as Windsor Castle caught fire and the Princess of Wales’s thinly disguised memoir of royal misery was published. Suddenly, a growing chorus of royal critics in politics and the media started to focus on the royal finances, too. Within the royal camp, a siege mentality took hold.
But the monarchy was already well down the road to reform. Back in those contented times in the mid-Eighties, a wise new Lord Chamberlain (de facto chairman of the Royal Household) had arrived in the form of the Earl of Airlie.
A shrewd former banker, he could see that the entire organisation was in dire need of internal reform. The Royal Household was living beyond its means and its staffing arrangements, like its ethos, had barely changed since the turn of the century. And it was depending on an arbitrary annual handout from the Treasury, the Civil List, which dated back to the 19th century.
Elizabeth’s father King George VI, her mother Queen Elizabeth and sister Princess Margaret at London Airport to wave her off ahead of the tour. He died six days later.
Lord Airlie took his concerns to the Queen who authorised a top-to-bottom investigation. The subsequent report, stretching to well over 1,000 pages, covered everything from boilers to uniforms to pensions. The Queen then told Lord Airlie and his team to implement it all and that he would negotiate new terms with the Treasury.
The reforms caused mayhem at every level inside the Palace, not least when the five separate tiers of the staff dining restaurant were knocked in to one. But the costs fell and Mrs Thatcher’s government, along with the Opposition, agreed to fix the Civil List at £7.9million a year for ten years.
When that time was up, the annual costs were under such tight control that the same fixed rate was applied for another decade. As a result, the Queen would run the only arm of the state which performed the same role on the same budget for 20 years.
Long before the question of royal taxation had become an issue, Lord Airlie had initiated discussions with the Inland Revenue on that score, too. When, in 1993, it was confirmed that the Queen would pay regular income tax, the media portrayed it as a victory for the critics. In fact, it was virtually a done deal anyway.
The gap widened sharply as the Sixties unfolded. Television, originally acquired by so many families in order to watch the coronation, started to become less deferential. Pictured is Queen Elizabeth II presenting the World Cup to England’s Bobby Moore in 1966
While the royal soap opera made the headlines, the royal changes went much deeper than the accounts. This was just part of a much broader cultural change. The days of palace appointments based on connections rather than merit were over. A new breed of management would start to look at what sort of royal engagements the family were undertaking and why.
Long greeting lines of civic worthies were replaced with more informal receptions with a particular emphasis on youth.
Two trends would emerge in the later stages of the reign: the Queen wanting younger faces at royal events and her greater emphasis on issues of faith.
The Queen would always prefer to hear young people explaining what they were doing now or next rather than her contemporaries reminiscing about the past. A royal itinerary would always be more likely to opt for the school over the town hall. The Queen was the first Supreme Governor of the Church of England in history to visit the mosques and temples of other faiths and to welcome a Pope to Britain. And a study of her Christmas broadcasts is telling.
As Britain became a more secular society, so her annual message became more overtly religious in tone. Over time, she would be the only major public figure who could talk about God without fear of ridicule or mockery. Her faith was uncomplicated, unswerving and reaffirming.
When asked for the secret of her long life, experienced courtiers would reply: ‘Good health, strong faith and Prince Philip.’
Having sworn to protect the Church of Scotland (it has no ‘Head’), the Queen was a much-loved member of the church community at Crathie Kirk, the small church next to the Balmoral estate. Few parishioners could match her knowledge of a place where she had worshipped since she was a small child. Though it was seldom remarked, the Queen was the most Scottish monarch since the Act of Union, being twice descended from Robert the Bruce on her (Scottish) mother’s side.
This partly explains why she made what some regard as one of the very few personal mistakes of her reign, staying put at Balmoral in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales had highlighted a generational shift in the national character. The wartime generation, of which the Queen and Prince Philip were exemplars, had been taught not to show their feelings. The Queen and Diana are pictured together in 1982 attending the opening of Parliament
None could fault her motives in ensuring that the family rallied around Diana’s sons. She had done the very same for two of Earl Mountbatten’s grandchildren after the 1979 IRA bomb which killed the earl and three others.
But in 1997, the national mood was febrile in the days after the princess’s death. Some felt that the Queen should have returned to London to meet the grieving crowds sooner than she did. But as one royal aide explained afterwards, things could seem very different in the remoteness of the Highlands.
Any list of her ‘mistakes’ is invariably short and involves errors of omission rather than commission.
She was criticised for not going soon enough to Aberfan, scene of the apocalyptically ghastly 1966 disaster when a slag heap smothered a primary school in a Welsh mining village, killing 144 people, 116 of them children.
Those around her at the time said it was not through any lack of compassion. It was down to the fact that she feared she would be overcome by the tragedy of it all and felt unsure how to handle the situation if she was.
Her forte was utterly sincere, pitch-perfect understatement. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, she ordered American music to be played at Changing the Guard and issued a message containing one of her most famous quotes: ‘Grief is the price we pay for love.’
The memory of it still reduces many Americans to tears.
The death of Diana, Princess of Wales had highlighted a generational shift in the national character. The wartime generation, of which the Queen and Prince Philip were exemplars, had been taught not to show their feelings. At the tail end of the 20th century, with a new informality in public life epitomised by the style of the New Labour government, the new orthodoxy was to unleash one’s emotions, not contain them.
True to herself, the Queen was never going to follow suit. She had a lifelong aversion to anything which might smack of insincerity, let alone a stunt. But she acknowledged that the monarchy had to keep on adapting. It had sorted out its financial problems. In the dark years either side of Diana’s death, she would ensure that it was more in tune with the national mood.
The Queen walks through the Sagana lodge in Kenya alongside Sir Philip Mitchell, Governor of Kenya, a few hours after receiving the news her father had died on 6 February 1952
A special office inside Buckingham Palace was opened to ensure that royal engagements were more efficient and targeted. Called the Co-ordination and Research Unit, it would go out of its way to find sections of the community which had less exposure to the Royal Family. Military organisations or counties such as Berkshire were never short of royal visits; ethnically mixed inner cities less so.
Steered by her advisers, the Queen quietly amended her own job description.
For as long as anyone could recall, the monarch’s position was Head of State and his or her role was laid down in Walter Bagehot’s 1867 English Constitution.
During the Nineties, the Queen quietly added a new title to official royal publications – Head of the Nation. This covered all the unspecific but crucial roles of a modern monarch: promoting excellence and voluntary service, fostering national unity and so on. It was bolted on to the royal website, another innovation which the Queen endorsed.
It was not just a nod to the digital revolution, either. She would go on to visit the British headquarters of Google and was often heard to say to Prince Philip: ‘You should Google that.’
The younger generations never expected her to ‘get down with the kids’ as so many politicians have attempted to do, usually with excruciating results. People would have been appalled if she tried. But there was unquestionably a connection. On her travels, crowds of all ages wanted to see her. When asked, they would often conclude that there was something ‘timeless’ about her. Her own fondness for young people was rooted in her love for an organisation which, perhaps more than any other, would be embodied by her.
Whatever the crisis – personal, familial, national or global – Elizabeth II was the embodiment of the old wartime adage, ‘keep calm and carry on’
The Commonwealth was in its infancy when she came to the throne. Just three years old, it had eight members. By the time of her Golden Jubilee, it had more than 50 member states and spanned every continent, every major faith and up to a third of the world’s population.
As a child, she was expected to inherit the British Empire. But a post-war Empire wanted to go its own way, led by India and Pakistan. That nearly all the colonies of the Empire would soon opt for independence yet remain part of this post-imperial club was largely down to the unifying (and glamorous) figure with the honorary title of Head of the Commonwealth.
During her reign, she would visit almost every part of it, often several times. Many Commonwealth nations, from Australia and Canada to Belize and Barbados, would opt to keep her as their head of state long after independence. Others, such as Kenya or Trinidad, would opt to become republics. But no one ever doubted that the Queen should be the symbolic figurehead of the Commonwealth itself.
One of the first acts of Nelson Mandela upon becoming president of South Africa was to readmit the country to ‘the Club’, after long years in the wilderness. The Queen was thrilled. The two heads of state would retain a long, mutual profound respect for one another. He was, very unusually, allowed to call her, simply, ‘Elizabeth’.
Though there were reports of a rift between the Queen and Mrs Thatcher, notably over the latter’s quarrels with the rest of the Commonwealth, both women were very hurt by the suggestion.
The Queen’s dedication to the organisation was beyond doubt, however. Many diplomats have claimed that the whole thing would have fallen apart without her uniting influence.
At the same time, the Commonwealth was gently reshaping British society through the arrival of workers from former colonies to help rebuild post-war Britain.
By the midpoint of her reign, Britain was well on its way to becoming the multi-cultural society we have today.
It was never going to be straightforward. Throughout her reign, racial tensions would often be inflamed by political extremists. But there is no question that her devotion to the multi-racial, multi-faith Commonwealth made the new arrivals and their families feel more welcome. People would always want to raise their game for Queen Elizabeth II. Even fiery republican spirits would be on their best behaviour around her.
She charmed former IRA commander Martin McGuinness. Her 2011 state visit to Ireland – during which she visited the most sacred monuments to Irish nationalism and even spoke in Gaelic – was perhaps the most effective single example of healing in a century of troubled relations.
No one did more to put the U into UK, yet her kingdom was seldom completely united about anything during her unrivalled 70-year reign. Such is the nature of a true democracy.
But it will surely be united now – in the grief that is, indeed, the price we pay for love.
Queen of Our Times – The Life of Elizabeth II by Robert Hardman is published by Macmillan
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