Hereditas Historiae

Website hosted by Irène Diependaal to foster some historical knowledge necessary to understand our present times

Andrew Marr - The future (2011)  

Elizabeth II by Annie Leibovitz (2007) - National Portrait Gallery, London

‘The Queen is blessed with a strong constitution and the calmness of someone who knows they are useful. If she lived as long as her mother, she could reign for another fifteen years. That would make her the longest-reigning British monarch too, easily outstripping that earlier great Queen, Victoria. The British monarchy remains physically Victorian. The palaces and their decoration still reflect the taste of Queen Victoria; the ceremonial uniform of the Guards remains essentially Victorian; most of the grand events of today are modelled on Victorian predecessors. But Queen Victoria was an empress, whose reign saw her small archipelago of damp, sooty towns and newfangled farms stretch its power across the world. She was Great Britain’s figurehead during her super-stretched and confident heyday. Elizabeth II was dealt not this royal flush but lower-value cards. She has reigned during the final demolition of empire when the republican United States, formed in reaction to British monarchy, became the dominant world power. She yet may live to see China challenge for that role.

Queen Victoria had to do hardly anything towards Britain’s continued expansion. She was more of an executive monarch, in the sense of having more of the state’s business to transact herself, than her great-great-granddaughter; but Elizabeth II has travelled relentlessly to keep alive the spirit of the Commonwealth, the legacy of her imperial ancestress. She works at least as hard at her papers as did Victoria, determined to demonstrate her relevance to the politicians and civil servants who rule in her name. Unlike Victoria, who closeted herself on the Isle of Wight and at Windsor and Balmoral for so long she fomented republican feeling, the present Queen constantly shows herself. Queen Victoria, though a doughty woman, would have demanded the smelling-salts and headed for home in a carriage had she faced her descendant’s schedule.

Being Queen these days is simply a harder job. The Duke of Edinburgh, who has seen it at closer hand than anyone else, has reflected that it is a life nobody would choose or volunteer for. In a sense, of course, the Duke did volunteer for it because he married Princess Elizabeth when he knew she would become Queen. Since then his role has been to support her and act as the head of the family, working behind the scenes to keep “the Firm” together.

The central thing which makes monarchy different in kind from republicanism is that it stitches family life into the public realm. Every monarchy has found this difficult. (….)

Like Victoria, her heir has had to wait until his own old age for the chance to reign, while struggling to establish an independent role. What lessons does her success have for her son? Modesty is one. Her view of her role has been that she is a symbol, and that symbols are better off keeping mostly quiet. After the first excitement of her Coronation she was never the centre of a frenzy of national optimism, so she was never in the firing line during a spasm of national self-loathing. If this is a strangely passive record of achievement, one only has to think of what trouble an activist, opinionated monarch might have got into during the 1960s, or the Thatcher years, or when New Labour was going to war in the Middle East.

It goes further. The Queen’s style of monarchy has buried much of a sense of self, as we understand that today. (….) With her heir, the Prince of Wales, it is very different. He has had to carve out a life, a role, for himself. Prince Charles is a puzzle, and one suspects he would agree. Well-meaning, shrewd, ambitious to do good, he is also a more prickly and self-conscious person than his mother. This may be a problem when he becomes King. We have become used to self-abnegation in our monarch. Prince Charles, already summoning ministers to see him, and firing off letters to government departments, is not big on self-abnegation. Indeed, around him there is a new theory of monarchy quietly being discussed. It goes like this. The sovereign’s role is to be the non-executive chairman of the national company. The chairman ought therefore to challenge, balance and make up for the deficiencies of the rest of the board - those short-termist, pesky, and often incompetent elected politicians. If Parliament brings itself into contempt by expenses or other scandals; if ministers dodge difficult long-term problems; if the public has lost its allegiance to the old political ideologies - why then, a modem monarch must step forward and help.

Over the past sixty years, as we have seen, the Queen has taken a much more cautious attitude. As a “non-exec” she has been thoughtful, hard-working, psychologically shrewd and able to offer politicians a great store of memories about the business of state. She is not the real board, but she is listened to, and provides continuity, in the way that a veteran chairman and one-time founder of a global company might be listened to. The more the “board”, the party-political parliamentary government, is in disrepair, or struggling, the more attentive the listening is. Why does she sit for hours each day, patiently reading her red boxes? It is a question of credibility. If she is to be a good head of state, she must know what is going on, just as a non-executive chairman must have read the paperwork before a board meeting. (…)

Prince Charles has pushed the boundaries of what Royals are supposed to do. He has raised an astonishing amount of money for good causes such as helping preserve rainforests and giving young people a new start. Almost all of this work is done away from the limelight because of his despair about the likely effect of media exposure. Millions of people share his environmental and culturally conservative views, and they are poorly reflected in the ordinary, democratic politics of modern Britain. Here, as in most developed countries, the primacy of economic growth, attended by free-market economics and scientific optimism, overshadows all other debate. It is therefore naïve to claim he keeps “out of polities”. He is a political man, whose political vision just happens most of the time to be rather wider than the current debates at Westminster. (….)

So here is a man of strong views and considerable energy, albeit not the greatest organizer, who has raised important questions about religion, the environment and human rights, and who has tried to use his unusual position to bring together politicians, business people and campaigners to change things for the better. (….)

Could the man who is now Charles, Prince of Wales, stomach being the man who would be King Charles III, or George VII? If a hereditary monarchy means anything, it cannot break its own rules, so the odds are heavily that he will succeed. Prince Charles long ago distanced himself, physically and emotionally, from the Queen's court. His succession would be followed by a dramatic clearing-out of the current Buckingham Palace staff and the arrival of his own team. One of the more dramatic ideas that has been discussed is for the Royal family in his reign to leave Buckingham Palace entirely, leaving it as a kind of grand official government hotel and centre for events. The King would base himself not in London, but at Windsor Castle. Whether this happens or not, Charles has a strong desire for his reign to be different, and to make his own way as monarch, just as he has in his current life. This is natural, but if it excludes the hard-learned lessons and iron self­discipline of the Queen's reign, it is dangerous too. Assuming he lives longer than his mother - and he has at times wondered aloud if he will - then Prince Charles will become a very interesting king.

Whenever one mentions the word “abdication” at Buckingham Palace, faces wince and mouths tighten. “I don't suppose the Queen has ever entertained the thought,” comes the reply. Or: “She doesn’t know what the word means.” Or, harking back to Uncle David, “The Queen’s view is that you couldn’t have two abdications in one lifetime.” It is not quite true that the Queen has not entertained the thought. She has discussed abdication privately with loyal and senior figures, though she has gone on to declare against it. For her, if it can possibly be done, the job really is for life. Yet as we have seen, the Queen is a pragmatist. More and more of her work now will be passed over to her son, and to her grandsons too. She will travel less. As Prince Philip grows very old, she wants to be with him as much as possible. He has retired from some of his jobs. He has said he wants more time to relax and feels his memory is not what it was. For both, the formal duties are becoming a little more tiring all the time. Should the Queen be unable to carry on in great old age - a more common problem these days - there is a Regency Act, which some profess “perfectly serviceable” and others say “needs revisiting”, to allow Prince Charles to dissolve Parliament, give royal assent to bills and read out Queen's speeches. One source says of abdication, “I wouldn't actually rule it out, at the end of the day. If she got to a point where she was very old, and very tired, it could come to be the sensible view. A lot depends on the public.”

It always has. So far, the British public’s view of the Diamond Queen is sparklingly, crystal, dear. The longer she reigns, in good fettle and spirits, the better for what remains, despite everything, her lucky country.’  

Elizabeth II & Prince Philip in Windsor Castle - Thomas Struth (2011) - National Portrait Gallery, London

Postscript by Irène Diependaal written for Hereditas Historiae

The quotations are taken from the last chapter of Andrew Marr’s Diamond Queen (2012). As Marr explains himself in the Acknowledgments: ‘The book was written while writing and filming a three-part BBC television series about the Queen, which will be broadcast for the anniversary of her accession, in February 2012. It is not, however, “the book of the series” but a separate endeavour. Nor is it in any way officially authorized. The text has been read by the Palace to correct errors of fact but there has been no access to the Royal Archive, nor any restrictions about what I could say. I would, however, like to record my profound thanks to the Queen’s helpful, sensible and friendly staff at Buckingham Palace who have opened doors and corrected mistakes. I would like to thank members of the royal family, past and present royal servants, family friends, Whitehall officials, many politicians and journalists for their candid help too. Many of them did not want to be identified by name and I have tried to respect all promises of confidentiality.’

Andrew Marr also explained his personal, changed attitude towards the British constitutional monarchy and especially Queen Elizabeth. ‘Many years back, I would have confidently described myself as a republican. This was mainly because I thought it would make me seem clever. As a strategy it was doomed. “Get over yourself,” I thought, and long ago jettisoned the elitism of anti-monarchism in a profoundly pro-monarchy country. The majority are not always right, God knows; but when they raise a glass or a mug to the stability and reassurance Queen Elizabeth II has brought during difficult decades, they express genuine common sense. I have followed the Queen during some of her many duties, and talked to those closest to her, from ladies-in-waiting to friends of the family and members of the royal family too. And honestly, the more you see of her in action, the more impressed you are. She has been dutiful, but she has been a lot more than dutiful. She has been shrewd, kind and wise. Britain without her would have been a greyer, shriller, more meagre place.’

Andrew Marr (1959) studied English at the University of Cambridge. Since then he had a long career in political journalism. He described his career, together with his view on journalism, in My Trade (2004). From 2000 to 2005 Andrew Marr was BBC’s political editor. He has written and presented TV documentaries on history, science and politics. During the writing of the book, and up to present day, he presents weekly Andrew Marr Show, on BBC1.