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Queen Elizabeth: Happy and Glorious

Simon Evans looks back at the Queen's remarkable reign

It is a sobering thought that many people reaching retirement age this year were not even born when the Queen ascended the throne on February 6, 1952. Quite simply, for most of us, she has always been there, a reassuring presence through times of personal and national joy and tragedy.

While her reign has not always been happy and glorious The Queen has remained, through good times and bad, that ‘still small voice of calm’ at the centre of our national life, providing continuity and stability through sometimes tumultuous changes. Her reign has survived civil war in Northern Ireland, the near break-up of the United Kingdom and no doubt it will also survive Britain’s exit from the European Union.

It may be too soon, and too sweeping, to talk of a second Elizabethan age of prosperity, discovery and innovation, but when ‘Lilibet’ – as she was known to her close family as a child – became Queen, at the age of 25, most households did not possess a television and thoughts of every home one day having a computer were the stuff of science-fiction.

While her reign has been bookended by times of great austerity and uncertainty, living standards have changed beyond all recognition over the past 65 years. The Queen’s reign has also encompassed massive social change, and we now take for granted sexual, social and political freedoms that would have been unheard of in the buttoned-up early Fifties.

In the early years of the Queen’s reign considerable deference was still paid to the Royal Family, and their personal lives remained a carefully protected secret.

Until the late Sixties, when the Royal Family finally agreed to a documentary being made about them, all the nation saw of The Queen was on postage stamps or state occasions. Even the Queen’s beloved governess, Crawfie, was ostracized after publishing a short, innocuous volume about the young ‘Lilibet’ and her sister.

When Elizabeth ascended the throne there was also still a British Empire of sorts, and in her first Christmas broadcast The Queen described the “British Commonwealth and Empire”, as “a great power for good – a force which I believe can be of immeasurable benefit to all humanity”. During her reign the Empire continued to diminish, but the Commonwealth stayed close to her heart

Through all these changes The Queen has remained steadfast, sometimes forced into uncomfortable changes, but also willing to adapt when necessary. She is, above all else, a supreme pragamatist, aware of the limitations of her role, but also its possibilities.

The tone of Elizabeth’s reign was set during her childhood. Her grandfather, King George V, was by all accounts a dull, irascible man but he and his wife, Queen Mary, were adored by the British people, who filled the streets of London in their thousands to celebrate the King’s silver jubilee in 1935.

To the young Elizabeth, who was especially close to the King, and called him ‘Grandfather England’, he represented all that was good about the monarchy. After the disastrous diplomatic adventures of King George V’s father, Edward VII, that had led to the Entente Cordiale with France and, ultimately, to Britain’s taking part in the First World War, the power of the sovereign had been reined in by successive Prime Ministers

That suited King George V, who managed to stay above and beyond politics, although he played an important behind the scenes role in the formation of a National Government after the 1934 financial crisis.

Elizabeth II, too, would largely stand apart from the hurly-burly of politics. While her parents had been dutiful and much-loved, she never forgot the traumatic effect the abdication of her uncle had on her father, mother and sister, but most of all on herself. Elizabeth was ten years old the day her father became King, and she must have known, even at so young an age, that, unless her parents produced a son, her life would never be the same again.

Having originally being destined to live the life of a minor royal, Elizabeth had become heir presumptive to the throne. The trauma unleashed by the abdication was a lesson, she believed, in what happened if you broke the unwritten rules that underpinned the monarchy.

Early in her reign, however, The Queen was forward-looking enough to realise that the new medium of television allowed her to directly address the nation in a way that had not been possible before

So, during preparations for her Coronation, Elizabeth insisted that cameras should be allowed into Westminster Abbey for the service, and for it to be broadcast live, over-riding the objections of her advisers, the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The number of television licence holders immediately doubled, from 1.5 million to three million.

Despite this new spirit of openness, the Royal Family remained largely out of view, but as the Sixties swung around, old class distinctions were breaking down, you no longer needed to speak the ‘Queen’s English’ to get on, and the public was increasingly curious to know what the Royals were really like.

They finally got to find out with the 1969 documentary The Royal Family, the first television programme to lift the veil on this secretive institution. Although not especially revealing in itself, certainly in comparison with the 1997 documentary A Year with the Queen (which by selective editing appeared to wrongly show the Queen walking out of a portrait sitting), the documentary made the Royals unlikely television personalities, and thus fair game for a press increasingly hungry for scandal and titillation.

The Royal Family did not disappoint in this regard, and in 1999, after two decades of salacious royal revelations, Prince Philip was moved to complain that “the press have turned us into a soap opera”.

Well, the young Royals did a pretty good job of that themselves, without any help from the media and by the Eighties they were being openly lampooned on the Spitting Image satirical puppet show, something that would have been considered close to blasphemy only a decade before.

We can only imagine the personal pain it must have caused The Queen to see the marriages of three of her children end in failure, more so for every last episode of their disintegrating relationships to have played out across the front pages of the nation’s tabloid newspapers.

Now the story of the Royal Family has been turned into a glossy television drama, The Crown. Although made without any input from the Royal Family it presents a largely sympathetic portrait of the Queen (beautifully played by Claire Foy), as someone forever conflicted between private loyalties and the duties bestowed on her by the crown.

This acknowledged tension has sometimes caused difficulties in The Queen’s relationships, but through good times and bad, the Duke of Edinburgh has never been far from the her side (or at least the customary two steps behind). In November the Queen and Prince Phillip celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary, and at a lunch to celebrate their Golden Wedding, the Queen acknowledged just what a rock her husband has been throughout her adult life: “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years, and I, and his whole family, in this and in many other countries, owe him a debt far greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”

Although close as children, The Queen’s relationship with her younger sister became strained when Princess Margaret was refused permission to marry Group Captain Peter Townsend, on the grounds that he was a divorcée. In order for the marriage to go ahead Margaret would have needed to renounce her royal title and allowance, to in effect become a commoner. She chose duty, but many biographers believe that the affair scarred Princess Margaret for life, although she was able to maintain a close relationship with her sister to the end of her life.

Similarly, the Queen’s relationship with her Prime Ministers (there have been 13 of them at the time of writing) has not always been easy, although she was known to have got on particularly well with Harold Wilson, perhaps seeing a kindred spirit in his down to earth outlook (which masked a first class mind) and love of simple pleasures.

Although fond of Winston Churchill, who was Prime Minister, when she ascended the throne, The Queen often felt patronised by the elder statesmen and on one occasion had to admonish him for leaving her in the dark about his having suffered a stroke that obviously affected his capacity to govern effectively.

Instinctively someone who has striven for unity throughout her reign The Queen had a particularly prickly relationship with Mrs Thatcher, regarding her first female Prime Minister as a divisive figure, and someone who shared very different views on the Commonwealth and South Africa (the Queen showed no hesitation on bestowing the order of merit on Nelson Mandela when he became president of the country and put an end to apartheid). And the film The Queen perhaps did not reveal the true extent to which she resented Tony Blair’s meddling in royal affairs, particularly over the arrangements for her mother’s funeral.

Viewed from the perspective of 20 years, the Queen’s desire to protect her young grandchildren from the public frenzy in the aftermath of Princess Diana’s death in the summer of 1997 was surely correct, and Tony Blair’s bullying of her into becoming part of the general hysteria of that week now seems especially shameful.

Despite the limitations of her position the Queen can sometimes get her own way with her governments

In March 1965 Tony Benn was Postmaster General in Harold Wilson’s government and was tasked with getting the Queen’s approval for a set of stamps marking the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Controversially the design did not include the Queen’s head on one of the stamps. Up to that point every coin and stamp in British history bore the monarch’s head, so this would have been a small but important change.

In his book The Diamond Queen, Andrew Marr relates the meeting between Benn and the Queen that ensued, one in which the minister did most of the talking, and “left the Palace believing that the Queen agreed with him, or at least would not confront him.

“Benn appears to have been left with the impression that “if you went to the Queen to get her to abolish the honours list altogether she would nod and say she’d never been keen on it herself and felt sure the time was right to put an end to it.”

He would not have been the first to leave the presence of the Queen mistaking her politeness for agreement, and behind the scenes levers were set in motion to block Benn’s plans, so by July the Queen’s Private Secretary was confident enough to tell the Postmaster General that the monarch was “not happy” about the design, forcing Benn into a tactical retreat.

Benn had also reckoned without the Queen Mother, a power behind the throne who on several issues, most notably the refusal of permission to Princess Margaret to marry Peter Townsend, had been an important influence on her daughter. Apparently, when she saw the proposed Battle of Britain stamps she was furious, and reminded the Queen in no uncertain terms that she was the head of state and should not stand for it.

Most of the time, however, The Queen has managed to stay out of politics, and this has allowed her to take on more of a spiritual function, as the living embodiment of the nation or, as the Archbishop of Canterbury who officiated at her Coronation described it, “the power to lead, inspire and unite.”

In his excellent short biography, The Queen, AN Wilson wrote of the sovereign’s unswerving sense of duty and service: “she is a consecrated person, and anointed monarch. In her way, a sort of priest. She regards her life as one of dedication, just as much as if she had become a nun or a member of the clergy.”

The Queen is a devout Christian, and takes her role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England very seriously, being, for instance, a keen supporter of the ordination of women priests.

A common theme of her Christmas broadcasts across the years has been the inspiration she takes from the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, which she once described as “an anchor in my life.”

In the 2014 broadcast she described Jesus as “a role model of reconciliation and forgiveness… Christ’s example has taught me to respect and value all people, of whatever faith or none.”

While her faith is firmly rooted in a spiritual sense of duty, The Queen’s pleasures are also simple and few.

One revealing incident came at the time of a National Portrait Gallery exhibition of portraits of the Queen. Asked at a dinner whether The Queen had seen any of them, the Queen Mother replied, “there have been no nice portraits since Annigoni, and that is for two reasons. One is that the Queen is devoid of egotism, so she does not care how they depict her; the other is that she has no aesthetic sense – as she’d be the first to admit – and so she does not notice that they are all bad paintings.”

Even the Queen, however, took exception to Lucian Freud’s grotesque portrait of her, although, as she revealed to one of her courtiers, she was also relieved that the artist, renowned for painting large ladies in the altogether, had not been tempted to paint Her Majesty naked.

The Queen’s taste in art is rather more conventional, naïve pastel drawings of corgis and horses. Her other passions have included Terry Wogan’s breakfast radio show, jigsaw puzzles and of course horses. The Queen’s typically frugal penchant for Tupperware containers was the source of much mockery when they were photographed surreptitiously on her breakfast table, but, in this age of easy outrage, she is equally condemned for any hint of extravagance.

Prince Philip complaining that the Royal Family was so hard up he might have to give up playing polo, or Prince Charles moaning about uncomfortable seats in the business class section of an aircraft have sometimes suggested a monarchy that does not, or cannot, understand, the lives of its people, but one person who was invited to take lunch with the Queen in 1990 was surprised to be offered macaroni cheese and mashed potato, and no alcohol.

But then, as a child, one fried egg a week was considered a luxury. She is also no stranger to hard work, and ‘did her bit’ during the war by joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service, learning all about the workings of the internal combustion engine and becoming a skilled driver.

Even at the age of 91 The Queen’s work ethic remains strong and her daily routine has remained little changed, although engagements have now been scaled back to one or perhaps two a day.

She is woken by the sound of bagpipes on the terrace of Buckingham Palace, and enjoys a breakfast of tea and toast while listening to Radio 4 (Chris Evans on Radio 2 is not to her taste, unlike her beloved Wogan) and perusing the Racing Post and Daily Telegraph.

There is then usually a meeting with her private secretary, official boxes full of documents to attend to, then maybe an investiture or official lunch followed by a visit, a meeting with ambassadors or more discussions with officials followed by dinner in the evenings.

The Queen also has regular sessions with her official dresser and once a week, at 6.30pm on a Wednesday, she has her audience with the Prime Minister of the day. This lasts about an hour and a half and is a chance for the Prime Minister to not only brief the sovereign on affairs of the day, but also to use her as a sounding board. No one, after all, can match her depth of knowledge, as historian Peter Hennesy has pointed out: “She has been in receipt of every intelligence briefing paper and significant cabinet document since 1952… she is a walking repository of modern British history.”

It also helps that the Queen has no personal axe to grind during these meetings, which are never minuted and never leaked, at least by The Queen.

Many people who have had dealings with Elizabeth regard her as an enigma. The only time she betrays any emotion in public is at the racecourse, when a favourite horse triumphs or fails, but although often shy and unsmiling in public those who meet The Queen privately often pay testament to her personal warmth and informality, her kindness, sense of humour and even her gift for mimickry.

Just occasionally we get a glimpse of the Queen’s wry sense of humour. When introduced to the Queen during her 2016 visit to Northern Ireland the late Martin McGuinness solicitously enquired after the sovereign’s health (as a former IRA leader he had devoted a large part of his life to plotting her destruction) to which the Queen replied, “well, I’m still alive”. Cue awkward silence.

Essentially, however, The Queen remains unknowable, and that is surely only right if the mystique that is essential to the survival of the monarchy is to be retained. As one-time Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, observed, “I don’t fully understand her, but that’s part of her secret. She’s the only person who can rise above it.”

One aspect of her public life that The Queen seems entirely at ease with is the tradition of the ‘walkabout’, which only came into being during 1977, her Silver Jubilee year. For the first 25 years of her reign contact with Elizabeth’s people was very limited but the tradition of the monarch and her family taking time out to talk to members of the public is now an important, and much-anticipated aspect of any Royal visit.

As The Queen herself put it, “I must be seen to be believed”.

And yet Elizabeth, as a student of the constitutional historian Walter Bagehot, is all too aware of his maxim regarding the monarchy, that “we must not let daylight in on the magic”. As the descendant of William The Conqueror she is the repository of centuries of history, a vital link to our past, a symbol, as AN Wilson so elegantly puts it, “of an unchanging presence in a changing world”.

More than that, however, constitutional monarchs are “symbols of a power which no human being is entitled to exercise, and which will always elude them in the end.” And no one knows that better than our own gracious Queen.

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