Stephen Bates - Royalty Inc. (2015)
‘I have to be seen to be believed’ - said to be the Queen’s private motto
Elizabeth II by Lucian Freud, 2001 - National Portrait Gallery, London.
‘However wrote the original words to the National Anthem, the signature tune of Britain, probably at some time in the first half of the eighteenth century, could not have known how apposite they would still be two and a half centuries later. Our noble Queen has certainly lived long - longer than any previous monarch in the nation’s history - and she has long reigned over us too, generally happily and graciously, though gloriously may be more a matter for debate. You have to be in your seventies now to remember a time when she was not the monarch. Indeed, if you were born on the day she became Queen you can't be far off reaching retirement and collecting your state pension.
The Queen’s longevity is a tribute to her robust health, but how is it that the institution she represents, based on some very quaint traditions and dated assumptions, tracing its origins back more than a thousand years, has not only managed to survive but to flourish well into the twenty-first century? There are very few enduring monarchies in the world in democratic countries: they are basically restricted to a fringe of western Europe, and the British monarchy is by far the best known of them. More than a governmental system, an ancient flummery or a tourist trap, it is, arguably, the most famous noncommercial brand in the world. Our small, sprightly, octogenarian Queen, after more than sixty-three years on the throne, is one of the most famous women anywhere on earth, as recognisable to someone in Tokyo or Tulsa, or even Timbuktu and Tuvalu, as in Tooting or Truro. Everything about her on the surface is familiar, from her dress sense - pastel colours, off-the-face hats - to her voice, reminiscent of a different era and class. We know she likes dogs and horses and Scotland, that in private she is a good mimic and sometimes sardonic, that she hates being late, that she is strongly religious and is very conscientious and stoic. What we don’t know is what she thinks about almost anything: her opinions are unknown and unknowable, a blank. Her inscrutability is the secret of her success. If we really knew anything about her thoughts, the monarchy would rock: its apparent impartiality is its greatest strength, for almost any opinion held by the sovereign would divide the country, whereas having none publicly goes a long way towards uniting it.
For a journalist it is the greatest frustration: how do you report on someone you cannot talk to? With the possible exception of Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, the Queen is the only person on the planet who cannot be interviewed - even Pope Francis regularly chats to the media these days. We can guess what she is like and speculate for all we are worth, the Queen even occasionally shows passive emotion, but ultimately the mask never slips. We may think we know what she is really like, but do we? As Lord Fellowes, her former private secretary, told a new member of staff: “Just because she is friendly, it does not mean she is friends with you.”
Everyone knows (or thinks they know) her family, too. The royal soap opera trundles on, less thrilling perhaps than twenty years ago, but still fulfilling all the requirements of an ongoing weekly saga: the matriarch with an ageing husband apt to speak his mind too freely and put his foot in it; the frustrated eldest son with the turbulent lovelorn backstory; the young married couple with babies; the dull and grasping younger children. Characters come and go, some die off, others arrive and plots emerge, then peter out, but the story continues. It is a seeming anachronism which remains incredibly popular - much more so than most other institutions in Britain or abroad, shining bright in public affection, untarnished like politicians, or the church, the media, the bankers or big business. This is one company that has somehow pulled off the trick of seeming never to change, but yet it always manages to evolve, quietly, inconspicuously but firmly: as familiar in its way as a Coca-Cola bottle or a Marmite jar. A new label here, a new ingredient there, a plastic bottle instead of a glass one, a new taste sensation. We think iconic brands do not change, but they do and if they do it too drastically or obviously, they suffer. Equally, if they do not change, they decline and die. Royalty is a bit like that. It has been changing successfully for years, centuries even, without most people really noticing. It is not the same institution it was when the Queen came to the throne in 1952; in many ways it has changed out of all recognition and so it sails on. This book seeks to track the changes and explain how the monarchy has achieved its transformation. How has it pulled it off? And will it continue to do so?’
‘Even a hardened television interrogator like Jeremy Paxman admits to having shied away from speaking to her when he had the chance at a palace reception: “The truth was that I had been overcome by nerves ... ‘a certain tension which is akin to awe’ fitted the mood well enough ... What was it about this diminutive grandmother that induced paralysing tension?” Even those who work for her experience something similar. One former senior official who found himself being interviewed for his job by the Queen, who he had not met, seen before or ever considered working for, said: “It is surreal. You are sitting there thinking: ‘This is the woman whose head is on the ten pound note.’ Then you start looking harder and thinking, hmmm, curls are tighter. The surprising thing was she was actually quite teasing: it was just a chat, more than an interview. She asked me where I came from and it turned out she’d just been there and knew it better than I did. In meetings with her after I joined the palace you would sit around a table, with tea and sandwiches. I realised that my interview had been ab out whether I would fit in. The Queen herself was always quite detached: it was as if she was in another world.”
Some would say the nerves come from the sense of being in the presence of majesty - the divinity that doth hedge a king, as Shakespeare said - or of magic; a sense of nerves at standing next to one of the most famous people on earth. It is not power - the Queen cannot order you to the Tower, or to execution, change a government or decide what constitutes the law in her own courts like some of her predecessors tried to do. It is not, particularly, charisma; perhaps not even a sense of history. But there is definitely an aura. People dream about the Queen, they imagine what they might say to her and what she might say to them (allegedly, it is often something about a cup of tea. And she’s usually wearing a crown). Possibly it is an awareness of just who else she has met and shaken hands with and a consciousness of making a fool of oneself by saying something utterly banal or foolish when what one wants to say ought to be memorable, original and witty. She will have heard it all before. She can’t answer any really interesting questions. There won’t be a real conversation (not that you would have that perhaps with any other famous person you met briefly). Best not to say anything. Maybe turning your back and taking a selfie would be safer. As the Queen herself said to someone whose mobile phone went off just as he shook her hand: “Better answer that. It might be someone important.” So she does have a sense of humour.
And, more importantly, she has been around for a very long time. She has seen more confidential government documents, intelligence reports, foreign and diplomatic assessments, and heard more crucial gossip than anyone else alive. Twelve prime ministers have come and gone - a fifth of all the prime ministers of the past three hundred years - starting with Sir Winston Churchill, born in 1874, to David Cameron, born ninety-two years later, who is younger than all her children.’
‘The royal family do not believe in abdication, but change is inevitably coming. The Queen will be ninety in April 2016, her husband is ninetyfour. Will the Queen soldier on her whole life long as she once pledged to do, when the Duke of Edinburgh dies? Surviving partners often give up. Officials insist the Queen will not abdicate and would continue to reign after her husband’s death. Would there in that case be a regency, as there would have to be if she became incapacitated? Buckingham Palace has given this thought and had a look at the relevant legislation just in case. There were four regency acts in the twentieth century, all passed at the beginning of reigns when the new sovereign's children were under the age of eighteen, but for any current purposes the procedure is contained in the 1937 legislation allowing the lord chancellor, the speaker of the House of Commons, the lord chief justice of England and the master of the rolls to step in if “by reason of infirmity of mind or body [the Sovereign is] incapable for the time being of performing the royal functions”. In order to make and sign that declaration to the Privy Council they would of course need firm medical evidence. Such a provision has not been required since poor George III was recognised to have declined into his final madness beyond hope of recovery in 1811. Let us hope for all concerned it does not come to that.
In any event, at some time in the not too distant future, Charles will succeed his mother if he is fit to do so and, when he does, he will be already well past retirement age: he is considerably older than any previous monarch who has ascended the throne. He has waited all his life for that moment and it will not pass him by if he can help it. But beyond him, Prince William is already in his mid-thirties, in the press photographer’s words, “another bald bloke in a suit”. It is becoming a rather staid family: comforting, respectable, but ever-so slightly frumpy. Not many fairy tales, not much magic. Camelot it ain’t. The grind will go on; the soap opera may continue: Prince George and Princess Charlotte will grow up, go to school and then look for partners, but will people become bored with a never-ending royal Groundhog Day?
This book has argued that the institution of the monarchy has survived and flourished because it has quietly evolved to meet changing circumstances and expectations within a framework of dignity, pragmatism and inherent conservatism. Its success is not very mystical, though it has a spiritual element: it survives because it is unthreatening and gives the British people a sense of solidarity and stability, a symbol of their country and its heritage. It has even pulled off the trick - fortuitously - of floating above class and its wealth has not been an impediment to its popularity despite the tenacity with which it has protected its coffers. Most importantly it has enabled the British (and populations across the world) to identify with it, in solidarity with a family which is not like them at all…’
Postscript by Irène Diependaal written for Hereditas Historiae
Stephen Bates was a journalist for 36 years until 2012. On his personal website: ‘I was the Daily Mail’s education correspondent, then the Guardian’s education editor. I spent time covering British politics at Westminster for the BBC, then the Daily Telegraph and then the Guardian. I moved on to be the Guardian’s European Affairs Editor, based in Brussels with my family for nearly five years and then, in 2000, returned to London where I became the Guardian’s religious affairs and royal correspondent: covering as I always said two institutions the paper didn’t believe in…that didn’t prevent me being made British religious writer of the year in 2005 and 2006 by the Churches’ Media Council though. As a royal reporter I covered visits, overseas tours, court cases (the royal butlers…), deaths and funerals (Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother), jubilees and even a wedding.’
On Royalty Inc. on his personal website: ‘My latest book, Royalty Inc.: Britain's Best-Known Brand, was published on 3 September 2015. It is partly the outcome of my twelve years as the Guardian’s royal correspondent, 2000-2012, but it contains much new information and the outcome of interviews with many current and former palace officials and members of staff. The book is about how the institution has evolved to maintain its popularity at a time when many other bodies have seen marked declines in esteem and popularity.’