Hereditas Historiae

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

Andrew Marr - What the Queen Does (2011)  

Elizabeth II - Yousof Karsh (1951) - National Portrait Gallery, London

‘She is a small woman with a globally familiar face, a hundred­carat smile  - when she chooses to turn it on - and a thousand years of history at her back. She reigns in a world which has mostly left monarchy behind, yet the result of her reign is that two-thirds of British people assume their monarchy will still be here in a century’s time. She is wry and knowing, but she feels a calling. All this is serious. She can brim with dry observations but she seems empty of cynicism. She is not a natural public speaker.  

But there she is, in May 2011 and dressed in emerald green, arriving for her first visit to the Republic of Ireland. Aged eighty­five, she makes one of the most politically significant speeches of her life. “It is a sad and regrettable reality that through our history our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss. These events have touched many of us personally ... To all those who have suffered as a consequence of a troubled past I extend my sincere thoughts and deep sympathy.” This is a highly emotional trip. (…). Nobody else from Britain could have made such a visit of high-profile reconciliation, covered by more than a thousand journalists and reported all round the world. No British politician has been around for long enough, or been personally touched so closely, or could claim to speak for Britain itself. Ireland’s President Mary McAleese speaks for her people warmly and well, the first Northerner and the second woman to serve in the job. But no Briton other than the Queen could speak in that way for the British.

There she is again, just a few days later, welcoming President Barack Obama to stay at Buckingham Palace. In the gusty sunshine overlooking the lawn there is picture-postcard pomp - a guard of Household Cavalry, marching soldiers, bagpipes, national anthems, the reverberations of artillery salutes. On the eve of his visit, speaking in Washington, Obama had gone out of his way to praise the Queen in lavish if not entirely politically accurate terms as “the best of England”. His earlier visit had gone spectacularly well. Even so, this is a relationship which is also, in a gentler and more personal way, about friendship and reconciliation.

For when Obama first became US president there had been unease in London. Here was a man who seemed cool about the (exaggerated) “special relationship” with Britain. He had no personal ties - or rather, just one, which was unhappy and about which he had written himself. His grandfather had been arrested, imprisoned and tortured in Kenya. The early years of the Queen’s reign had been marked by a brutal war against the nationalist Mau Mau there. Obama is a supremely professional politician, very unlikely to allow personal history to influence his decision-making, but the unease was there. Once the pomp was over the Queen did her level best to make him and his wife Michelle feel especially welcome, showing the couple to their bedroom.

There was on show a very shrewdly chosen selection of memorabilia from the Royal Archive - as there always is for a state visit. These are worth dwelling on. There was a note in George III's handwriting, from around l780, lamenting “America is lost! Must we fall beneath the blow?” but going on to speculate about a future of trade and friendship. There were letters from Lincoln, Obama’s hero, and from Queen Victoria to his widow; and diary entries by Victoria showing her sympathy for black slaves, recording her excitement in meeting one, Josiah Henson, who she said had “endured great suffering and cruelty” before escaping to British Canada. There were records of a visit by the then Prince of Wales to Obama’s home city of Chicago in 1860, and a handwritten note by the Queen Mother to the then Princess Elizabeth recording their visit to President Roosevelt in 1939 when they ate under the trees “and all our food on one plate . .. some ham, lettuce, beans and HOT DOGS too!” Homely - but a reminder of the vital wartime alliance which followed King George VI’s most important overseas visit. There were details and a flag from Hawaii, Obama's birthplace. (…)

In a small way it contains the essence of the case for monarchy. First, this is a constitutional job but it is also a personal one. From American independence, through the story of slavery and places of particular interest to Obama, the job was to make an emotional connection - to find points of contact. In return, Obama gave the Queen a book of photographs of her parents’ 1939 visit, on the eve of war. He would set off for important and potentially tricky talks with Prime Minister David Cameron about Libya, Afghanistan and their different approaches to economics in the warmest possible mood. This is what the Queen is for. As with the Irish visit, nobody else could do it. Second, though, she can only work effectively because plenty of other people (such as the Royal Librarian Lady Roberts ) work very hard behind the scenes, unknown to the public. (…)

The best antidote to weariness or hostility about the Queen is to try to follow her about for a few months. From trade-based missions overseas to visits to small towns and hospitals, it is a surprisingly gruelling routine. It includes grand ceremonial occasions and light-footed, fast-moving trips to meet soldiers, business people, volunteers and almost every other category one can imagine. It eats up evenings, where at one palace or another thousands of people have been invited to be “honoured” for their work or generosity. It involves the patient reading of fat boxes of heavily serious paperwork, oozing from the government departments who work in her name. In Whitehall, where they assess the most secret intelligence as it arrives, the Queen is simply “Reader No. 1.”

It has been a life of turning up. But turning up is not to be underestimated. The Queen has a force-field aura that very few politicians manage to project. There is an atmospheric wobble of expectation, a slight but helpless jitter. When she turns up, people find their heart-rate rising, however much they try to treat her as just another woman. Somehow, despite being everywhere - in news bulletins, on postage stamps, cards and front pages - she has managed to remain mysterious. Her face moves from apparently grumpy to beaming, and back. Her eyes flicker carefully around. She gives little away. (….)

She is not an actor. But the popularity of the monarchy owes a lot to the way she performs. Life has taken her around the world many times and introduced her to leaders of all kinds, from the heroic to the monstrous; and to seas of soapy faces; and to forests of wiggling hands. Since she was a small girl, she has known her Destiny. All the accounts of her childhood agree that she was a calm, thoughtful child, with a passion for animals. Though shy, she regards being Queen as a vocation, a calling which cannot be evaded. (….)

Like any eighty-five-year-old she has been bereaved and suffered disappointment as well as enjoying success. She has lost a King, a Queen and Princesses - her father, mother, sister and the remarkable Diana - as well as friends. Yet she can be satisfied. She knows that her dynasty, unlike so many others, is almost certain to survive. Her heir and her heir’s heir are waiting. With her, and her kind of monarchy, most of her people are content. (….)

Elizabeth II - Patrick Lichfield (1971) - National Portrait Gallery, London 

The job

As head of state, Queen Elizabeth is the living symbol of nations, above all that of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - though another fifteen besides, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and smaller countries, down to Tuvalu. She is not like most other constitutional monarchs. The British state has no single written constitution nor any founding document. About a third of the Dutch constitution, by contrast, explains what the Dutch monarch’s duties are. Spain's king is part of one of Europe’s oldest and grandest royal houses, the Bourbons; but his job is strictly limited in the careful prose of the Spanish constitution.

The British Queen’s authority is more like a quiet growl from ancient days, still quietly thrumming and mysterious. She stands for the state - indeed, in some ways, at least in theory, she is the state. She is the living representative of the power-structure that struggles to protect and sustain some 62 million people, and another 72 million in her other “realms”.

She is not the symbol of the people. How could she or anyone represent the teeming millions of different ethnic groups and religions, of every political view, shape, bias and age? Her enthusiasm for the Commonwealth of nations, which is not the private passion of many British politicians, has made her more interested in the lives of the new black and Asian Britons than one might expect. Receptions at Buckingham Palace are generally more socially and ethnically mixed than they are at Downing Street, or in the City. She is at her most relaxed and smiling with young people, nervous people and unflashy people. Watching her at official occasions, it is clear that the chores are the grand dinners and speeches.

Yet, like it or not, she is the symbol of the authority which drives the state servants and laws - the elections, armies, judges and treaties which together make modern life possible. For sixty years she has appeared to open her Parliament, to remember her nation’s war dead, to review her troops or to attend services of her Church. “Britain” cannot go to the Republic of Ireland to finally heal a political breach that goes back to the Irish struggle for independence in the 1920s - but the Queen can. “Britain” cannot welcome a pope or a president. She can.

She has great authority and no power. She is a brightly dressed and punctual paradox. She is the ruler who does not rule her subjects but who serves them. The ancient meaning of kingship has been flipped; part of the purpose of this book is to explain how, and why, that has been done. Modern constitutional monarchy does not mean subjection, the hand pressed down on an unruly nation. Instead it offers aversion of freedom. For the Crown is not the government. There is a small, essential space between them. It would be rude to say that ministers are squatters in the state - for governments come from parliaments which are elected, the ultimate bastions of our liberty. Nevertheless, ministers are lodgers in the state. They are welcome for a while, but have no freehold rights. The Queen stands for continuity. This is a dull word, but when asked what the Queen is really about, “continuity” is the word used most often by other members of the royal family, by prime ministers, archbishops and senior civil servants. What do they mean? Not simply the continued existence of the country or the state. It is true that the state is a living and valuable presence before and after any one government. People look back to the past and imagine a future that outlives them: monarchy takes a real family and makes it the rather blatant symbol of that existential fact. So a constitutional monarchy claims to represent the interests of the people before they elected this government, and after it has gone. It remembers. It looks ahead, far beyond the next election.

The distinction between state and government is an essential foundation of liberty. In Britain a pantomime of ritual has grown up to express it. At the annual State Opening of Parliament, once in a year, the Queen reads out her prime minister’s words, ventriloquizing for her government. She speaks with deliberate lack of emphasis or emotion: nobody must be able to hear her own feelings break through. A junior minister is taken hostage at Buckingham Palace to guarantee her safety and underline the separation of politics and state. When she leaves Westminster, he is released (after a decent drink) and normal politics resumes. The state and the government have come together, touched hands, and gone their separate ways. Other countries have a similar distinction, expressing it through written documents or powerless elected presidents; the British have long preferred a person.

This is the job. In practice it is a little harder than it looks. When the most important foreign leaders arrive for a state visit, the Queen greets them in the country’s name with a smile and a gloved handshake and small-talk, again deliberately designed never to offend. She offers house-room and pays kind attention to people she may privately regard as abominable or merely hideous bores. Guests at Buckingham Palace or at Windsor will be guided around by the Queen in person. She will have checked the rooms first herself, trying to make sure suitable books are left by the bed, that the flowers look good, and that everything is welcoming. At the grand dinners she will have overseen the food, flowers and place-settings: will everybody be satisfied with where they are seated, and get on with the people put beside them?

When the guests arrive and the conversation starts she has to remember to dodge anything that might cause her ministers a headache. One former foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, has watched her do it: “She’s got quite an elaborate technique. When a visiting head of state, or whatever it is, begins to talk politics, begins to explain what's happening in his country, she says, “That’s very interesting Mr President ... and I’m sure the foreign secretary would very much like to discuss that with you.” And so you’re shunted. The points change, and you’re shunted onto a different line.” Others talk about how she uses polite silence to deflect trouble; and it is very noticeable that when you ask people about their conversations with the Queen, they bubble about her wit and insight - and then tell you exactly (and only) what they said to her. Clever.

Much the same seems to happen in her weekly audiences with her prime ministers, of whom there have been a dozen to date. Though these meetings are completely private (no note-takers, no secretaries, no microphones), former premiers and civil servants talk about them as a kind of higher therapy, rather than a vivid exchange of views. For sixty years she has listened to whatever they have said - self-justifying explanations, private whinges, a little malice about their rivals - without letting any of them know whose side she is on except, in the broadest sense, the side of the continuing government of the country. Sir Gus O’Donnell, a cabinet secretary who has worked with four prime ministers - Sir John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and now David Cameron - says: “They go out of their way not to miss it. It’s a safe space where prime ministers and sovereigns can get together, they can have those sorts of conversations, which I don't think they can have with anybody else in the country ... they come out of them better than they went in, let’s put it that way.”

She knows almost every state secret of the past sixty years. Every day she works her way through state papers, sent in red boxes to her desk. Gus O’Donnell again: “We give the Queen the minutes of cabinet, for instance, so she’s up to date on the discussions, the decisions that have been made. She gets a lot of material about what the government’s actually doing, in her red boxes.” The Queen is very interested in issues involving the constitution - Sir Gus singles out current controversies about Britain’s switch to fixed-term parliaments and the future of the House of Lords - and anything to do with Britain's military.

She works hard too, to support the civil service, who, like her, have to be neutral but get very little applause from the public or press. In public, in her Christmas broadcasts and many speeches, she generally takes great care to stay on the safe ground of general expressions of goodwill, although at Christmas she often touches on issues of the day. For decade after decade she has dodged traps that could have led the monarchy into serious danger. She has made mistakes, of course. She is only human. But she has managed this dance of discretion so adroitly that many people have concluded that she is herself almost without character - neutral, passive, even bland.

She is not. She is capable of sharp asides, has a long memory, shrewd judgement and is a wicked mimic. She has been very frank about her children’s scrapes. She has closely observed and dryly described the oddities of foreign leaders and famous politicians. She has done it sitting playing patience during the evening at Balmoral, or with her legs tucked up under her on a sofa on the Royal Yacht, a glass of something cheerful in hand, or walking on beaches and hillsides. In private she has hugged and laughed; and been sharp with bores, dawdlers and slow eaters. Though she does not like confrontation, and has often sub-contracted that out to her husband, she has strong views about people. It is just that her job means she has to hide all this. Other people, celebrities and actors, are paid to have a “personality”. She is required to downplay hers.

This does not mean her life is dull. “We’re in the happiness business,” whispers one of her ladies-in-waiting as the Queen heads for yet another line of shouting, waving children. It must be wonderful to cheer people up without cracking jokes, or telling odd stories. She can do it simply by arriving, smiling, nodding and taking a posy or two. No one who has followed this now slightly stooping lady in her mid-eighties as she walks through small towns, foreign hotels, cathedrals and military barracks, casting sharp glances all around, and observed the grinning, pressing lines of people waiting for her, can doubt it. But there is “the tough stuff” too - a huge amount of ceremonial, religious and social business to be dealt with, week in, week out. (Some say, too much, particularly for a woman of her age.)

She is a woman of faith. She stands atop the Anglican Church, that national breakaway from Rome hurriedly set up by her Tudor ancestor, the beef-faced and priapic Henry VIII. So she is called Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. (…) The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, says she is formally the final court of appeal, the place where arguments stop. In practice, of course, she does not intervene in rows about the ordination of women priests or gay marriage, any more than she does in parliamentary arguments. But, says the Archbishop, “She believes that she has some responsibility for keeping an eye on the business of the church, some responsibility to support it, to get on the side of those who are administering the church and she is hers elf very committed as a Christian.” Williams says she was profoundly affected by being given a book of private prayers by a predecessor shortly before her Coronation, which she still uses. For her the Coronation was a vocation, “a calling, not a privilege but a calling. If it’s costly, it’s costly.” (….)

The Queen is also “the fount of honours”. She bestows medals, crosses, knighthoods and ribbons, mostly (but not always) on the advice of politicians, to those who are worthy (and sometimes not so worthy). Each one requires conversation, eye-contact, briefing and time. She has so far bestowed 404,500 honours and awards, and personally held more than 610 Investitures (the grand honour-giving ceremonies) since becoming Queen in 1952.

Then there are the services: the Queen is Head of the Armed Forces. It is to the Queen that new soldiers, airmen and sailors pledge allegiance, and in whose name they fight and die. She has a special relationship with some regiments - her first official job was as a colonel-in-chief - and a general one with all. This means many more visits and ceremonies. She is also a patron of huge numbers of charities. They too lobby and plead for her time, often to encourage fundraising. From time to time the royal family settles down together to try to organize their charitable work. After the death of her mother and sister, the family sat down at Sandringham around a card-table and shared out the work they would have to take on. They discovered some charities had rather too many Royals associated with them, and others none at all; so some switching-around was agreed.

Beginning to feel tired? What about Abroad? The Queen never forgets that she is Head of the Commonwealth, a title invented in 1949 to allow the newly independent republican India to keep its association with Britain. This involves her in a huge amount of travel, in addition to visiting her other realms and the diplomatic and trade-boosting visits her government tells her each year she must make. In the Foreign Office they draw up their wish list for state visits and other visits, arguing about which trading partner has priority over which, and which leader would be particularly gratified if the Queen arrived. And then another negotiation about her diary begins.

These visits are not jaunts. They involve a lot of planning and travel, endless changes of dresses and hats and, above all, a huge amount of listening, nodding and smiling. Most trying of all, there are the speeches. The Queen is a naturally shy and quiet person who even now, after all these years, gets no pleasure from public speaking whether the event is grand or modest. (….)

Beyond all this, the Queen has run the monarchy as a national adhesive, making constant visits around the country to be seen, to greet and to thank people who are mostly ignored by the London power-brokers and commercial grandees. She holds parties, lunches and charity gatherings at Buckingham Palace and Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse to thank or bring together other lists of good-doers, civic worthies and business strivers. At special themed receptions she honours all sorts of disparate groups - they might be Australians in Britain, or young people in the performing arts, or campaigners for the handicapped, or the emergency services. These events are meticulously planned. The Queen hangs over the lists of who may be invited, and why. She plans the evenings and the choreography, and manages to remember at least many of the names. Only by watching the delight of elderly volunteers whom nobody else had thought to make much of or struggling young musicians, can one understand the quiet power of this mostly unreported monarchical campaign.

Finally, there are the mass celebrations, the royal jubilees and marriages, which get most of the attention. (….)

For most of us the Queen seems always to have been there. She has done her job so well it has come to seem part of the natural order of things, along with the seasons and the weather. One day, of course, she won’t be there. Then there will be a gaping, Queen-sized hole in the middle of British life.’  

Elizabeth II by Andy Warhol (1985) - National Portrait Gallery, London

Postscript by Irène Diependaal written for Hereditas Historiae

The quotations are taken from the first 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.