June 1953. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and a good time to be alive in Britain. The bleak post-war years are drawing to a close. The streets of London and other great cities are littered with bomb sites, but the scars are healing. Britain still has pretensions of being a great military power, with its armed forces numbering 868,000 – six times today’s total – and scattered all around the world.
Its industries continue to outpace those of continental Europe and Asia by a wide margin. There seems every reason for confidence about jobs and the economy. Roughly a third of the new ships built around the world this year are made in the United Kingdom; nearly a quarter of world manufacturing exports come from this country.
And new excitements have fired national pride. Britain’s Roger Bannister has just become the first athlete in the world to run a mile in under four minutes. And on the morning of the coronation itself comes the news that a British-led team has conquered Mount Everest. “All this, and Everest too”, shouts the front page of the Daily Express.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill has for months been rolling out sonorous phrases about the glories that await the country under the sceptre, as he put it, of its new queen. And even Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour opposition – and not one for florid turns of phrase – is moved to hope for a new Elizabethan age, no less renowned than the first.
The eight-year-old me has no doubts about where Britain stands in the world. We had won the war, thanks in good measure to the ethics of people like my father and his friends. The world map on my primary school wall is still splattered with imperial pink. They haven’t got round to redoing India yet.
I don’t care much for the Young Elizabethan, the children’s newspaper that my parents insist on buying. Just two weeks before the coronation, its name has been changed from Collins Magazine for Boys and Girls, but it’s still as worthy and dull as its old name suggests. Much more exciting is the centre spread of my favourite weekly read, The Eagle, which carries detailed illustrations of the latest British technological triumph. A new aircraft carrier. The world’s first commercial nuclear power station. A gas-powered motorcar.
And sweet rationing had come to an end just a few months earlier, in February. My first purchase: a small bar of Fry’s Chocolate.
Then came the build-up to the big day, 2 June. We talked about little else at primary school. My sister and I were given free coronation mugs. By the end of May, traffic congestion triggered by the crowds gathering in London had become such that the police banned all but priority and public service vehicles from an area within a two-mile radius of Westminster. On the night of 1 June, half a million people were already bunking down along the coronation route in the pouring rain and wind.
And there was one big and new excitement: after initial opposition on the part of both the Palace and Downing Street, it had been agreed that most of the service in Westminster Abbey would be televised.
In anticipation, the number of television licences in the country had doubled to around 3 million in the run up to June. And it’s reckoned that as many as 27 million Brits watched at least part of the service on the day.
The Lambert family clustered uncomfortably around a neighbour’s small black-and-white TV set, and waited for the action.
After all that anticipation, it turned out to be a long – and for me, a bewildering and intensely tedious – way of passing the near three hours that the new queen spent in Westminster Abbey. The service itself was a weird hodgepodge of the ancient and the modern – but it was to have a decisive impact on the life and reign of the new queen.
Winston Churchill was determined that the coronation would outdo the Festival of Britain in 1951, which he saw as a piece of socialist propaganda that had more or less ignored the armed forces and the Commonwealth. And he was desperate to sustain the fantasy that Britain remained what he called “a great power”, to be ranked alongside the United States and the Soviet Union in the world order. Seventy-eight years old and losing his grip, this was going to be his final shot at telling that story.
Then there was Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury – who, after the space of 70 years, looked more like a scheming cleric from a novel by Hilary Mantel than anything imaginable today. His goal was to demonstrate that, despite the evidence of decreasing churchgoing, the Christian faith in general – and the Church of England in particular – remained an essential cornerstone of British national life. And he played a large part in the shaping of the service with that in mind. He didn’t go quite so far as to talk about the divine right of the monarch, but he did make it clear that in his view, the young Queen had been God-called. Her authority came not from the state or the government, but directly from the Almighty. At the coronation, he declared subsequently, this country and Commonwealth were not far from the Kingdom of Heaven.
Along with a stirring music that reverberated all around the Abbey, there were two key moments in the service. First came the oath.
Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury: “Is your Majesty willing to take the oath?”
Queen Elizabeth: “I am willing.”
Geoffrey Fisher: “Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?”
Queen Elizabeth: “I solemnly promise so to do.”
And not just that – but also, to preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, while maintaining all the rights and privileges of its bishops and clergy.
Then came the most sacred part of the proceedings – the moment when the television cameras were obliged to swing up towards the roof and blank out what was happening below. As the service sheet explained, the Queen, rising from her devotion, having been disrobed of her crimson robe and being uncovered, shall go before the altar, supported and attended as before. Four Knights of the Garter held a canopy over her head to guard her privacy, as the Archbishop dabbed sacred oil on her hands, breast, and head, and uttered a mysterious prayer: “As Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the Peoples.”
Nathan, for those who have forgotten, was the prophet who didn’t hesitate to put King David right when he strayed off the straight and narrow. A clear message here for the new queen. The oil had been made to an ancient recipe – including, among other things: rose, cinnamon, sesame, musk, and ambergris, a waxy substance taken from the intestine of a sperm whale.
This, we were invited to believe, provided a link to ancient times. As Shakespeare had put it in Richard II, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea could wash the oil from an anointed king.” Maybe we couldn’t go quite that far in 1953, but the anointment ritual was obviously intended to be deeply symbolic.
Taken as a whole, the Westminster Abbey service was not just about invoking the power of leadership. In the words of biographer Ben Pimlott, it was also about sacrifice. By bringing the Queen into the presence of the living God at the anointing, the service defined a special relationship with the deity – a relationship based on self-denial.
And this was no passing responsibility. The service made it clear that her commitment must extend to the point of her death. There could be no abdication, no passing of the load. She was in it for life.
That morning’s Times newspaper reflected the same theme. The Queen was willingly sacrificing herself to the service of God and the nation. Having made service her career, she has the reward of the selfless, in the pure joy of duty amply, generously done. The anointment was said to have moved the queen deeply. And how could it have been otherwise? She was young and inexperienced, and her education – to put it politely – had been strange. As she demonstrated throughout her life, she had deeply held Christian convictions, and she would remain true to her word.
After what seemed to me like an eternity, the coronation service finally drew to a close, and things started to pick up. Bands played and soldiers marched, including representatives of all the Commonwealth countries in colourful uniforms. Lots of big guns were fired, and the long procession back to the Palace featured a charismatic figure who people of my generation were to remember for years afterwards: Queen Salote of Tonga, a large woman who insisted on keeping her carriage roof open despite the pouring rain, and waved enthusiastically to the crowds all along the road.
For some time after the coronation, the Queen continued to be regarded with something close to adulation by the public in Britain and beyond. In November that year, she set off with her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, on a marathon tour of the Commonwealth that was to last five and a half months. And the Pathé news reels back home showed the scenes of wild enthusiasm that greeted her everywhere, from Bermuda to Gibraltar, by way of Jamaica, New Zealand, Australia, and Uganda.
Criticism was not to be contemplated. I will remember the sensation caused in 1957, when Lord Altrincham, then a little-known hereditary peer, published an article that criticised the monarch in personal terms. She came across, he said, as a priggish school girl – captain of the hockey team, a prefect. The Crown, he argued, had become complacent and hidebound.
The BBC blacked the story as being beneath its dignity, but the rest of the media were outraged. Coming out of a TV studio one night, Altrincham was confronted by a Mr. B.K. Burbage – who smacked him across the face and cried out, “Take that!” – from the League of Empire Loyalists. The picture was plastered all over the front pages the next day.
But fantasies about a second Elizabeth age were already fading. It’s hard to overstate the humiliation generated by the Suez debacle in 1956, when Britain, France, and Israel conspired together in an unsuccessful attempt to wrench back control of the Suez Canal from Egypt.
Britain’s military weakness and its growing dependence on the United States had been exposed to the whole world. At the same time, the economies of continental Europe were growing from their low, post-war base at a much faster pace than that of the United Kingdom
Britain manufactured nearly two-and-a-half times more motor cars than Western Germany in 1950. By 1960, German vehicle output had multiplied by around eight times, and was a third higher than that of the United Kingdom.
Public attitudes to state institutions in general became less reverential, and deference was out of fashion as memories of wartime disciplines began to fade. In 1958, the Queen announced she would no longer be receiving debutantes, the daughters of posh people, at an annual presentation at court. Into the 1960s, cinemas continued to play the national anthem at the end of each night’s performance – but the trick now was to bolt for the exit as soon as the credits began to roll – only freezing to attention if you couldn’t quite make it to the door in time. And in 1962, the Beatles released ‘Love Me Do’.
The world was changing fast, and nowhere more obviously than in the Empire. In the first two decades of Elizabeth’s reign, 32 countries around the world achieved their independence from Britain – sometimes at the cost of violence and brutal repression on the part of the departing colonialists.
Few people – apart from Mr. Burbage and his little band of far-right friends – appeared to care very much. As Philip Larkin wrote in 1969, following Britain’s decision to withdraw its troops from east of Suez, “It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen. But now it’s been decided, nobody minds. The places are a long way off, not here, which is alright. And from what we hear, the soldiers there only made trouble happen. Next year, we shall be easier in our minds.”
In the event, the second Elizabethan age turned out to be nothing like the pictures that were painted in the heady days of 1953. For most of her long reign, the country was riven with uncertainties about its place in the world and about the relatively poor performance of its economy. As it drew towards a close, there were growing doubts about whether its four nations could hold together as a United Kingdom.
The country itself changed almost beyond recognition in demographic, social, and cultural terms. The brand of the House of Windsor was frayed by the behaviour of some members of the royal family. The role of the monarch as head of state became increasingly decorative.
But through it all, there remained one constant figure. One who everyone in the country and most parts of the world had been familiar with throughout their lives. Someone who had been present through tragedies and triumph. Who had only very occasionally been seen to put her foot wrong.
Of the many millions of images that have been taken of her over the years, one that will certainly endure is that of her sitting alone and socially distanced in her pew in St. George’s chapel, Windsor Castle, in April 2021 – and mourning the death of her husband, Prince Philip. Iron self-discipline as a model for the nation.
So it was that in February 2022, 70 years after her accession, she renewed her pledge to the public. She wrote then that “my life will always be devoted to your service”. And she signed herself off as, “Your Servant, Elizabeth R.” Whatever you may feel about the institution, you have to admire the consistency and the strength of purpose.
Front of house performance: outstanding.
Back of house performance: not so impressive.
That might be a management consultant’s summary of the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
Her achievements on the public stage were remarkable. She always turned up; she never complained; she retained her dignity as head of state whatever the circumstances. She never lost her temper in public, or refused to carry out a duty that was expected of her. In the many thousands of public meetings, she invariably left her audiences feeling better when they left than they had done when they arrived. They were always special occasions.
Over decades of increasingly partisan politics, she avoided controversy and stayed above the fray. And as political leaders were more and more willing to go down and dirty, she represented something different. As she told a local branch of the Women’s Institute in 2019, “I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view.”
But the organisation backing up this performance was slow to adapt to the great cultural and demographic changes that swept across the country during her years on the throne.
Despite various attempts at reform, the culture of the Palace through much of her reign would have been utterly alien to an incomer from middle-class England, built as it was around landed families and the military. Even into the 21st Century, in the words of one friendly observer, the scent of damp tweed could still be detected around the House of Windsor.
It was the Queen’s strengths as an individual that mattered most in so far as the public was concerned.
They included terrific stamina and an iron will. At the age of 86 at her Diamond Jubilee, she stood on the deck of a royal barge on the Thames without a break for four hours on one of the coldest and wettest nights of the year to watch the regatta go by. Her husband, Prince Philip, who was then aged 90 and had been by her side throughout, was rushed off to hospital with a bladder infection the next morning.
“The Queen is as strong as a yak,” her former private secretary, Martin Charteris, once observed. She certainly showed it that night.
She appeared indifferent to personal danger. Trooping the Colour on horseback in 1981, a spectator pointed a pistol and fired what turned out to be six blank shots. Her immediate reaction was to lean forward and calm her horse, which – she said later – had been distracted by the reaction of the other horses around her.
The following year, she woke to find an intruder sitting on her bed, blood dripping from his hand and clutching a broken ashtray. It took several calls to the police switchboard before help arrived: she put on her dressing gown and slippers and let him talk while she waited.
She was said to have been very angry about what had happened once the man had been safely removed, but her self control was such that she rarely showed her temper. As one adviser told biographer Ben Pimlott, “The Queen doesn’t get furious. Unless you tread on one of her corgis’ tails. Then that’s pretty bad news.”
She was sustained through challenging times by her unswerving Christian belief. Regular church attendance was part of that, along with the careful wording of her Christmas broadcast every year.
With the passing of the years, she became something like the nation’s comforter in chief – a sympathetic presence at disasters like the Dunblane massacre or the Grenfell Tower fire and giving words of encouragement at the most difficult moments in the nation’s story. There was no better example of this than her television broadcast in the early weeks of the Covid pandemic.
“I hope in the years to come, everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge. And those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any. We should take comfort, that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.”
Her faith must have also played a part in her amazing emotional resilience. She famously described 1992 as her “annus horribilis”, and you could understand why. That was the year when it became painfully and publicly clear that the marriages of her two elder sons were on the rocks, and when the divorce of her daughter was finalised.
Over that summer, growing public dissatisfaction with the royals led to a debate about whether the Queen should continue to be exempt from income tax, and whether taxpayers’ support for the family was too generous. The Sun inevitably had its say: “We can no longer sit in silence while the royals self-destruct,” it smugly observed.
The final blow came in November, when the grandest parts of Windsor Castle – a place very close to her heart – were consumed by fire that started in Queen Victoria’s private chapel.
The fire, on 20 November 1992, was the worst fire in an historic building for over 150 years. It burnt 115 rooms, including nine of the grandest apartments in the country. It burned for 15 hours and cost £2.4 million for every hour it did so.
When a Conservative government minister told the Commons that the government stood ready to fund the repair work at a cost of £36.5 million, the public reaction was immediate and hostile. She got the message. Four days after the fire The Queen spoke at a lunch in the City of London to mark her 40 years on the throne.
“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” she said.
That’s when she used the phrase annus horribilis, or one’s bum year as the Sun delicately put it. She acknowledged that no institution, city, monarchy, or whatever should expect to be free from the scrutiny of those who give it their loyalty and support, “not to mention those who don’t.”
But she added, somewhat hopefully, scrutiny by one part of another can be just as effective if it is made with a touch of gentleness, good humour, and understanding.
Just days later, Prime Minister John Major announced that the Queen and the Prince of Wales would pay income tax from then on and that taxpayers’ subsidies for members of her family would be cut back.
The Queen soldiered on. And the shock of that year had some positive consequences. One was the decision to open up Buckingham Palace to tourists in the summer to help fund the repair costs at Windsor. Another was that the royal household began to spend a bit more time thinking about its future and a few younger officials were brought into the Palace to help out.
One result was the Way Ahead Group, made up of senior members of the family who met occasionally to discuss the role of royalty in changing times. The meetings were not always that productive: the Queen tended to look distant; Charles to look sulky; Andrew to bang on; and Philip to kick things into the long-grass.
But change of a sort was beginning to be apparent some time before the shock of Princess Diana’s death. In the months that followed this tragedy, the Queen and her husband deliberately started to expand the scope of royal visits to connect with a wider public.
For example, they spent a day in the City of London, and came for lunch at the Financial Times, where I was Editor. There was a deal of preparation beforehand, officials were anxious to choreograph every moment: a private room had to be set aside for them to rest in ahead of lunch with, if I remember, a tin of Double Diamond beer and a bottle of Dubonnet ready on the table.
But once the formal stuff was over, it was a pleasant occasion – noticeably more relaxed than I’d experienced with various captains of industry and politicians in that dining room in the past. Over coffee, one of my colleagues started to ask in a roundabout way whether she planned to stay on the throne forever. “Ah, the Age Concern question,” she cut in breezily, and moved the conversation on.
If resilience was one of her great strengths, just as important was the fact that she really did enjoy her job. She was full of energy and good humour when she came to re-open one of the big galleries in the British Museum in 2017, and went beyond the call of duty in meeting and greeting the guests. I was chair of the board at the time, and the plan was that she just peep into the Jade Gallery and then move off. But she was fascinated by what she saw and lingered on.
One of the officials whispered: “We’re running behind schedule, you must persuade her to move on.” But I wasn’t going to disturb the Queen. “Tell her yourself,” I replied ungraciously.
So much for the strengths. What about the weaknesses?
The main charge is that the Royal Household remained stuck in the culture of her father’s time for much too long. This was the world the Queen had been brought up in, and she didn’t much like change.
And then there was her mother, who died in 2002 at the age of 101. She was, by all accounts, a powerful force for conservatism and deeply resented any suggestion that the old ways were not the best.
For his part, Prince Philip had modernising instincts, but was hostile to anything that might seem like a corporate approach. This was a family business.
As he once famously complained to an official, “The only two people who talked more about strategy and planning than you were Hitler and Stalin.”
The Queen’s friends tended to be wealthy landowners, and her interests – horse racing and countryside pursuits – were not likely to encourage bold new ways of doing things. While immigration was rapidly changing the demographics of the country, the Royal Household – for a long while – remained resolutely white.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the gears started to shift. Lord Airlie, a childhood friend of the Queen, a large-scale landowner and a City banker, became Lord Chamberlain. As such, he was the most senior officer of the Royal Household, and he started to get a grip. He produced a chunky report with nearly 200 recommendations and at least as important recruited a senior accountant, Michael Peat, to get on top of the royal finances.
Insiders argue that this initiative was transformational, and it clearly represented a big step forward. But the Palace was still behind the curve on a number of important issues. For example, a working party on the question of whether the Queen should pay income tax had been set up well before the change was announced late in 1992, but the discussion seemed to take forever. The result was that the decision, when it eventually came, looked as though it had been forced by tabloid pressure.
And right into the 1990s, there wasn’t much strategy in the way the family planned its work. Hundreds of letters would arrive asking them to do things: they would sift through the pile and pick what they fancied.
Some of the big royal events were looking a little shabby. Back in the 1960’s, Labour government minister Richard Crossman described the state opening of parliament as “like the (movie) Prisoner of Zenda… but not nearly as smart or well done as it would be in Hollywood”. Five decades later it continued to creak on its way every year, with its bizarre parliamentary rituals unchanged.
Management of the Royal Household became much more professional in the 21st Century, but it still wasn’t all plain sailing. Christopher Geidt was widely recognised as a formidably efficient public servant. As the Queen’s Private Secretary he was said to have been the safest pair of hands she had ever had, and he had played an important part in such crucial events as her trip to the Irish Republic in 2011.
But he was squeezed out of office in 2017, apparently at the behest of both Prince Charles and Prince Andrew who had resented his efforts to get a grip on their households. It seems harsh to blame a 91 year-old mother for giving way to pressure from her elder sons. But this was a bad day for the House of Windsor.
But in the eyes of the public how much did all this matter? The Queen’s opinion poll ratings have remained consistently high throughout her reign: YouGov surveys over the years showed that four-fifths or more of respondents thought she was doing a “good job”. The Platinum Jubilee celebrations demonstrated the strength of public affection for her, and the video of her taking tea with Paddington Bear – and tapping out the rhythm of We Will Rock You on her teacup – was the big hit of the Jubilee Concert.
The display of public emotion on the news of her death tells its own story.
But let the management consultants have the last word. There’s no sign of a strong shift towards an elected head of state in the survey data. Support for a republic has remained fixed at around 20 per cent for at least the last 30 years. But what is noticeable in the YouGov numbers is the fact that only 33 per cent of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 say they want to continue with a monarchy, and a massive 36 per cent say they have no views either way.
That suggests the biggest challenge for the Crown in the years to come will be to demonstrate its continuing relevance to new generations. And that in turn will require a decisive shift away from a culture built around damp tweed.
The Media: Speak to us Ma’am
The day after the Coronation, June 3, 1953, the Manchester Guardian published a cartoon by the great David Low showing a family in their front room looking very much the worse for wear after watching the television marathon. Called simply Morning After, the image proved highly controversial. Sackloads of letters thudded on the editor’s desk, of which 575 expressed outrage and just 66 were in favour. Mr George Smith of Blackpool summed up the critics’ view: “The cartoon in today’s issue besmirches the reputation of the Manchester Guardian forever,” he wrote.
Exactly 69 years later the Guardian, now published in London but claiming the same editorial values, advertised a limited edition of a print by its cartoonist Steve Bell. Headed “Platinum Liz”, it showed a grotesque caricature of the Queen with a coat of arms bearing the slogan: “70 glorious years on benefits and never signed on.”
Readers could buy a copy for just £250. There was no sign of outrage in the letters column.
There’s nothing new about mocking images of the royals. James Gillray’s “A Voluptuary under the Horrors of Digestion”, published in 1792, was every bit as brutal as Steve Bell’s cartoon in showing the self-indulgence of the Prince Regent, heir to the throne. Queen Victoria herself was the subject of crude cartoons, and Max Beerbohm’s caricature of Edward, the Prince of Wales, in 1905 left little to the imagination.
But the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign represented an exceptional period. The national mood was still shaped by the spirit of the Second World War, when patriotism and loyalty to King and country had come to be seen as a bedrock of national survival.
The war had encouraged a spirit of self-censorship in journalists, and the print media were controlled by a handful of establishment proprietors who had no interest in rocking the boat.
One example of their power came a few weeks after the Coronation when Prime Minister Winston Churchill suffered a serious stroke. A group of them rushed down to Chartwell, Churchill’s country house, and without seeing the old man agreed to persuade their fellow proprietors to keep the matter quiet.
Speculation about what had happened appeared in the foreign press. But in those pre-internet days this was all but invisible in the UK until Churchill himself casually mentioned the word “stroke” in the Commons a year later.
The BBC was the only national broadcaster, and remained under the firm grip that had been established in wartime. Broadcasting the coronation was a very big deal, and it approached the task with reverence. The Director General’s views were clear: “There ought to be an absolutely rigid policy that so far as the BBC is concerned [the royal family] can be guaranteed complete privacy,” he ordered.
The theatre was under strict control as well. Firmly ensconced as senior officer in the Palace, the Lord Chamberlain still controlled everything that appeared in the theatre. Shortly before the Coronation, he ruled that any representation on the stage of a British monarch more recent than Queen Victoria would be unacceptable in any circumstances.
And the Queen had an even more ferocious gatekeeper. She had inherited her father’s press secretary, who was to remain in office until 1968. Commander Richard Colville, a former naval officer, was a kind of Dickensian figure in his stiff un-bendingness.
The only thing he knew about the press was that he loathed it: journalists called him “the Abominable No Man”. The choice lay between printing royal press releases or tittle tattle, and the attraction of the latter approach was increased by the knowledge that it would drive Commander Colville to a frenzy of rage.
But this stilted world started to change, and rather quickly. As the royal party left Westminster Abbey after the Coronation service, the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, was spotted removing a piece of fluff from the uniform of Group Captain Peter Townsend, former equerry to the King, now controller to the Queen Mother and, much more importantly, a divorcee. The New York press reported this intimate moment the following morning.
Colville managed to keep the Fleet Street hacks at bay for eleven days until the Sunday People broke ground with a classic Fleet Street manoeuvre – denying the story that it wanted to print. Readers should know that the dastardly foreign press had been publishing scurrilous rumours that had to be untrue because no member of the royal family could possibly contemplate romance with a divorced man.
The game was on. Before too long, the Daily Mirror ran a poll which produced more than 70,000 responses: all but a handful thought that the couple should be allowed to marry. The newly established Press Council censured the Mirror for its appalling impertinence – of course, its ruling was ignored. Royal stories, it had become clear, sold newspapers.
As a journalist on the Financial Times in the last few decades of the century, I could watch what followed from a safe distance – we didn’t do royal stories. The first big move to happen once I’d started work came immediately after Commander Colville hung up his red pencil.
In 1969, the BBC broadcast the royal family, a documentary shot over the course of a full year and showing everyday activities of the Queen and her family at home and abroad, and with unrehearsed conversations.
It wasn’t exactly cinema verite – a committee chaired by Prince Philip approved every scene that was to be shown. But the idea was to create a favourable impression of the royals by showing them as human beings, and it was unlike anything that had been seen before.
I dimly remember it as being rather cheesy, but it attracted huge audiences and much enthusiasm. Bernard Levin, the shrewd Times columnist, took a different view: “Mingling itself with the people could not be a one-sided process,” he warned. “He who descends into the market place inevitably finds himself rubbing shoulders with the shoppers.”
Meanwhile, the structure of the media industry was changing. The BBC was no longer a monopoly broadcaster: after a quiet start, commercial television was making waves and was ready to grab viewers if the BBC continued with its snooty ways.
And Fleet Street was at the start of what turned out to be a long revolution. Rupert Murdoch made his first UK acquisition in 1969, and had zero interest in being part of the establishment. His Sun newspaper changed the tone of tabloid journalism forever, with a particular emphasis on topless women, sport, and the royal family. By the 1980s it was Britain’s largest circulation newspaper, and its editor Kelvin MacKenzie was demanding a Sunday for Monday splash about his favourite subject every week – without being much concerned about its accuracy.
At the same time, the media industry was becoming global. The cost of long-distance communications collapsed even before the internet took off and the British could no longer be protected from scurrilous stories in US supermarket tabloids. The fruitiest items were now instantly available to them.
The media treatment of younger members of the royal family had already become indistinguishable from that of other celebrities. Then came Princess Diana, and here it had in its sights a woman who was to become a truly global superstar. As the years passed and her marriage to Prince Charles started to fall apart, she proved to be much more adept at managing news coverage than her husband or any other member of his family.
During the final decades of the Queen’s reign, members of her family were to feature in a whole series of media pile-ups that gravely embarrassed the House of Windsor.
The toe-curlingly awful television show It’s a Royal Knockout was broadcast in 1987, showing younger members of the family cavorting around with various B-list personalities and demonstrating an astonishing lack of judgement and self-awareness. It played its part in altering the image of the Windsors as a disciplined and purposeful team. But it was light relief compared with what was to come.
In 1992, the Sunday Times serialised Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton, painting a picture of a vulnerable young woman unable to cope with royal relatives who were as unhelpful as they were self-absorbed, and which blamed her husband both for his lack of sympathy and for his continuing relationship with Camilla Parker Bowles. It was immediately clear that the sources of this book were close to Diana, and had acted with her approval.
A few months later came the Camilla tapes, an illicit recording of a smutty conversation between Charles and Camilla. They were made so widely available that even we at the FT got to hear about them, and I remember thinking that surely no one was going to publish this stuff. That showed how far out of touch I was: the Sun asked its readers if they should be published in full, and got the predictable response. By now, anything was possible.
In 1994, the BBC broadcast an interview between Charles and his biographer, in which he admitted his adultery. The next year came Diana’s notorious interview on BBC Panorama, and the Princess etched herself in the public mind as a tragically wronged woman. The Queen immediately let it be known that the time had come for a divorce.
By contrast, the Queen has never given many interviews. In her many decades on the throne, she has never expressed controversial views about anything. Only on one occasion did she find herself in serious difficulty with the media, and that – of course – was in the days following the death in a car accident of Princess Diana.
I was editing the FT from New York at the time, and was absolutely taken aback by the mass emotion that exploded in the UK and around the world in those fraught few days. This wasn’t my country as I knew it. I phoned a tough colleague in London to talk about our coverage; she burst into tears. The TV showed the mountains of flowers building up as tribute on the Mall. And it also showed growing public anger – first at the media whose actions were seen to have driven Diana to her death, and then at the Palace itself.
It was widely believed that she’d been cruelly dealt with by the royal family and its household. And now they seemed indifferent to the pain that had resulted. The Queen remained up in Balmoral for days, and there the Royal Standard was not even flying at half-mast. It didn’t matter that the Standard can never fly at half-mast, since there is always a sovereign. It hadn’t happened for her father: it wouldn’t happen for her, and it certainly wasn’t going to happen for anyone else. The flagpole over Buckingham Palace stood bare. The Queen, rock solid in tradition, was not going to be budged.
The growing hostility of the crowd fed through to the media. “Show us you care” cried the Express. “Your people are suffering, speak to us ma’am” implored the Mirror. “Where is our queen, where is her flag?” shouted the Sun.
When the royal party finally returned to the Palace, those inside watched events as they unfolded outside with a sense of real anxiety.
The Rolls Royce stopped outside the railings. The Queen and Prince Philip emerged to look at the flowers, and to talk quietly to a few of the mourners. The mood changed. As they moved through the gates, those watching inside the Palace heard a ripple of applause. That night the Queen made a special broadcast on live television, and got it exactly right.
The crisis – for that is what it had been – was over.
As the years passed, the House of Windsor continued to take body blows from its relationships with the media. Above all, in the shape of Prince Andrew’s excruciating interview with Newsnight in 2018, when he denied knowing the woman who was claiming to have had underage sex with him. That effectively finished his life as a working member of the royal family.
For the most part though, the Queen herself continued to float above it all. And the public mood toward her softened; partly no-doubt to do with her great age, with admiration of her steadfast commitment to her job, and with sympathy at the loss of her husband. And this was reflected in a more respectful approach from the press.
But in the last two decades of her reign, the Crown started to face new challenges from a fast-changing media world that, in time, are likely to prove more troublesome than the impact of gossip-hungry tabloids in the 1970s and 80s.
For her first 50 years on the throne, the Queen’s relationships with the wider public were mediated largely by way of broadcast radio and television and through print newspapers. From the beginning of the new century though, both these media were in accelerated decline and a stark divide was was emerging between the viewing habits of young and older people.
Circulation of that royal bête noire, the Sun, fell by more than two thirds from its peak in the 1980s. And print newspapers reached just 24 per cent of the British public in 2022, down from 40 per cent in the space of only four years. Instagram, TikTok and YouTube had all overtaken the BBC as the prime source of news for British teenagers.
The problem is that the House of Windsor is not well placed to accommodate these fast-moving platforms. Take a look at its website – Royal.UK. It probably makes fascinating reading for elderly readers of the Telegraph. But it might as well be from the Stone Age for most people under the age of 30.
In this new era of streaming services, views about the royal family for millions of people around the world have been shaped, at least in part, by the long-running Netflix series The Crown, which started in 2016 and ploughed ahead for years. The producers insisted that it was a drama, not a documentary, which is why they felt justified in including invented stories to create a plotline and imagined behaviour that grabbed the attention. But some of the scenes would have been way beyond the imagination of poor old Commander Richard Colville, the Queen’s fiercely protective press secretary back in the 1950s.
And then there’s the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and his wife Meghan. They have rejected the royal family and the media, but they depend on them both for their expensive Californian lifestyle. Netflix and Spotify have paid them many millions of dollars for exclusive content designed to appeal to large audiences. This means they have to remain in the public eye – and now that they no longer have royal duties to perform the one sure way of achieving that comes in the shape of public reflections about their cold and unfeeling family in London, courtesy of interviews with Oprah Winfrey and the like.
The big question now is this.
The Second Elizabethan Age was shaped by a monarch who avoided controversy, who didn’t give free-ranging interviews, and who spoke to the world almost exclusively through formal and carefully staged presentations. That approach turned out to be immensely successful over many decades.
But will it be sustainable? Can the monarchy be made to seem relevant to young people in the TikTok era? It’s hard to see quite how.
Head of state
To all outward appearances, the role of head of state in the United Kingdom changed very little during the long reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The red boxes of confidential government papers continued to arrive at her desk every day, and her weekly audiences with the prime minister remained a permanent fixture.
The Privy Council of government ministers went on meeting in her presence with its archaic practices intact, and the State Opening of Parliament – with its even more eccentric traditions – stood as a focal point in the annual political calendar.
But behind this apparently unchanging façade lay a real shift in power from the Palace to Downing Street over the decades of her reign. This was probably inevitable. As the fate of the House of Lords had shown, political power based purely on an accident of birth was no longer deemed acceptable. And unlike some of her predecessors, the Queen was always inclined to shrink away from confrontation. Whenever possible, she tended to take the line of least resistance when dealing with her prime ministers.
But closer to the end of her reign, she was confronted with Boris Johnson, her 14th prime minister. Apparently untroubled by precedent or political norms of behaviour, he was unlike any she’d had to deal with before. And this raised an awkward question, and one with no obvious answer.
If the head of state did not feel able to constrain a rogue prime minister, who would?
The Queen started her reign with two royal prerogatives that were then generally accepted, at least in theory. One was the power to appoint a prime minister, and the other was the authority to dissolve parliament. On top of that came the guidelines that were more or less invented as rules of the constitution by Walter Bagehot, the 19th-century writer and author of the seminal text The English Constitution. He wrote: “the Crown possesses, first the right to be consulted, second the right to encourage, and third the right to warn.”
Her predecessors on the throne were prepared to push these rights quite a long way. Her grandfather, George V, all but ordered Ramsay MacDonald to stay on as prime minister after he had lost the support of his own party, thereby leading to the formation of the National Government in 1931.
In 1945, her father George VI told Prime Minister Attlee to appoint Ernest Bevin, a great palace favourite, as foreign secretary rather than Hugh Dalton – Attlee’s first choice. That was probably going to happen anyway. But the King had strong views on other matters too, such as prescription charges on false teeth and spectacles, and he had a short temper if he felt he wasn’t being properly consulted.
This wasn’t Queen Elizabeth’s way of doing things.
The first test came in April 1955, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill – visibly slowing down both physically and mentally – at last came to the Palace to offer his resignation. She asked him whether he would recommend a successor. Churchill, an ardent monarchist who doted on the young queen, said that it was up to her to decide – safe in the knowledge that Anthony Eden was really the only possible option.
That was to be the last time she was offered what was at least notionally, a free choice.
The big challenge for her role as head of state came in October 1963, when Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan, suffering an acute prostate problem and worn out by political upheavals, suddenly resigned. Unlike Churchill, Macmillan was more than willing to offer his advice, heavily slanted in the improbable direction of Alec Douglas Home, the 14th Earl of Home – and away from the more obvious candidate, Rab Butler, who Macmillan was determined to keep out of office.
A student at the time, I wasn’t much interested in politics. But even to me, this outcome seemed completely bonkers.
Should she have accepted Macmillan’s guidance? In theory, she didn’t have to, not least because he had already resigned. But she knew and liked Home, a fellow landowner in Scotland, and as a former Palace official told biographer Ben Pimlott many years later: “Rab wasn’t her cup of tea. When she got the advice to call Alec, she thought ‘Thank God’.”
Of course, it would have been difficult for her not to trust her outgoing prime minister and look for advice elsewhere. But the arguments that raged about this decision effectively brought an end to the monarch’s freedom to choose. The main political parties took to electing their own leaders as their prime ministerial candidates.
There were still moments when she might have been called on to act, such as that exciting weekend in February 1974 when it had emerged that Prime Minister Edward Heath had not won the election – but neither had he clearly lost or resigned. Such uncertainties were finally put to bed when a new Civil Service document, the Cabinet Manual, was published in 2010.
This reported coyly that the scope of the Royal Prerogative power, which is the residual power inherent in the Sovereign, has evolved over time. Originally the Royal Prerogative would only have been exercised by the reigning Sovereign. However, ministers now exercise the bulk of the prerogative powers, either in their own right or through the advice that they provide to the Sovereign, which he or she is constitutionally bound to follow. From then on there could be no doubt about who did, and did not, call the shots.
The second remaining prerogative power, to dissolve parliament, was shot down at around the same time. David Cameron’s coalition government introduced a new Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which, subject to certain conditions, made an election automatic every five years. The legislation went through with scarcely a mention of the monarch, only to be repealed in 2021. When it came to the new legislation, it was agreed after some discussion that the prime minister of the day could only request – rather than advise – the monarch to grant a dissolution. But it’s just about impossible to imagine any circumstance in which that request might be turned down.
So now these prerogatives have gone – what’s left? Apart from purely ceremonial duties as head of state, Head of the Armed Forces and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, how can the monarch influence the affairs of the United Kingdom? Bagehot’s rights to consult, encourage and to warn are still there, but their practical results must depend very much on the relationship with the prime minister of the day. And as it turned out, this was one of the big successes of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.
No one else is present at the weekly meetings between the Crown and the prime minister. No minutes are taken, and the talk is confidential. But the consensus is that most of her prime ministers enjoyed their weekly discussions, and got something out of them.
There were some exceptions. Ted Heath had no small talk and could be abrupt to the point of rudeness. Her audiences with Margaret Thatcher were seldom productive, but not for the reasons you might think. According to biographer Charles Moore, Mrs. Thatcher was always nervous on these occasions. She sat on the edge of her chair and produced an agenda from her bag from which she launched forth. The audience finished, she would emerge from the meeting panting for a whisky and soda.
“I wasn’t given much encouragement to comment on what was said,” the Queen reported later.
Other prime ministers found the sessions more useful. Harold Wilson, an ardent monarchist, liked to use her as a sounding board. Jim Callaghan was one of several who found the weekly meetings a useful discipline and an opportunity to gather his thoughts together. David Cameron was especially enthusiastic. “She made me a better prime minister”, he said.
Two things mattered in this respect. One was that she really did do her homework with all those red boxes. Alistair Darling, who presented his budget to her as Gordon Brown’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, said he wished his fellow cabinet ministers read their briefing papers half as closely as she did.
And ministers could pour their hearts out to her, confident in her absolute discretion. Harold Wilson told her well in advance about his intention to resign. Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote in his memoir “I recall telling the Queen, the one person to whom I could unburden myself in complete confidence… that I thought the 1988 budget would be my last, because the prime minister was making the conduct of policy impossible.”
Rather than confrontation, her style seems more have been to nudge. Historian Peter Hennessy reports her reaction to one of Harold Wilson’s honours lists. She told her private secretary: “Please remind the prime minister there is always time to think again”.
She took care to keep her personal interests separate from her role as head of state. So, for instance, she didn’t lobby hard to preserve the Royal Yacht Britannia, which she loved, or to support the military which again was one of her passions. But she did manage to let the Cameron government know how sad she would be if the Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming fell victim to its austerity drive. It didn’t.
And she was good at asking difficult questions in an innocent manner. Meeting a group of academics at the London School of Economics in 2008, she inquired: “Why did no one see the financial crisis coming?” It took the academics eight months to come up with a reply that even they couldn’t have found very convincing.
Perhaps the best example of her style is to be found in the diaries of Tony Benn, one of the few republicans to make it to the top ranks of British politics since the war. Appointed to the cabinet for the first time in 1964 as Postmaster General, he decided his mission was to take the Queen’s head off the postage stamp, and replace it with an attractive design and some neutral form of wording – perhaps United Kingdom Postage. Fired with enthusiasm he commissioned possible examples, took them round the Palace and spread them out on the floor for the Queen to admire. In his words, Benn used all the charm he could muster, and the Queen responded in kind.
He came away feeling, as he put it, “absolutely on top of the world. The fact is the Palace is determined not to get into any controversy in which they might be seen to be holding back popular clamour for change”.
But for reasons that were never clear to him, things didn’t seem quite to work out. Civil servants appeared reluctant to act. The prime minister was not enthusiastic. Geoffrey Fisher, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote to say that since he had had the honour of placing the crown on the Queen’s head, he thought it inconceivable that anyone would think of removing it from the stamps.
Benn came up with all kinds of cunning wheezes in response. One was to commission a series of stamps featuring horses, which he knew the Queen loved. But by July 1966 he had to admit defeat. Promoted to minister of technology, he went to the Privy Council to kiss the Queen’s hand.
“I’m sure you’ll miss your stamps”, she said.
More serious challenges for the head of state lay ahead, and she dealt with them in different ways. One was the growing pressure on the make-up of the United Kingdom. In her Silver Jubilee address to both Houses of Parliament in 1977, she declared:
“I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this Jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom”.
She could never have uttered these words later in her reign: they would have been seen as far too politically loaded. The Scottish independence referendum came in 2014, and the outcome was very much in the balance. Coming out of church near Balmoral just ahead of the vote, the Queen spoke to a group of fellow worshippers. She said she hoped the Scottish people would think “very carefully” about the future.
David Cameron later claimed that he had prompted this gentle intervention. He hadn’t asked her to do anything “that would be in any way improper or unconstitutional, but just a raising of the eyebrow even, you know, a quarter of an inch”. That revelation was indiscreet, and so was the careless way in which Cameron had allowed himself shortly after the poll to be heard talking to a friend on the phone. When he had broken the good news to her, he had reported, the Queen had “purred” with delight.
But the future of Scotland within the United Kingdom remained uncertain at the time of her death. So did that of Northern Ireland, and here the Queen took a more active role.
She had taken a real interest in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, making phone calls to Prime Minister Tony Blair through the negotiations, and in 2012 on a visit to Belfast she famously shook hands with Martin McGuinness, a former commander in the Irish Republican Army. McGuinness himself said later that the meeting had the potential to define “a new relationship between Britain and Ireland and between the Irish people themselves”.
But in 2022, the republican party Sinn Fein emerged from elections with the largest number of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. No changes in the relationship with Britain seemed imminent: still, there is now some kind of a question mark over the long-term future of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom.
Brexit was the most politically divisive event of the reign. This time the Queen remained resolutely silent, despite the claims of sections of the media to have knowledge of her views. In such a heated atmosphere, there was no scope for an eyebrow to be raised, even by just a quarter of an inch.
In August 2019, she was informed that three Privy Counsellors were on their way to see her at her Balmoral summer retreat. They were led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, then leader of the Commons and they were coming to convene a Privy Council meeting in order to secure a suspension of parliament – a prorogation – for five weeks.
This was a very big deal, and way out of the normal run of government dealings with the head of state. Rees-Mogg was asking her to approve action specifically to cut short parliamentary debate in a manner that was bound to be highly controversial.
Officials sought legal advice on how to respond, and were assured that she would be acting properly in granting the prorogation. But the Supreme Court decided that she should not have been asked to take this step. Its ruling stated that:
“It is impossible for us to conclude, on the evidence which has been put before us, that there was any reason – let alone a good reason – to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament for five weeks . . . We cannot speculate, in the absence of further evidence, upon what such reasons might have been. It follows that the decision was unlawful”.
It’s very doubtful she could have done otherwise, given the Privy Council’s advice. But should it be for the courts, rather than the head of state, to check such behaviour?
Other constitutional stresses and strains were also becoming apparent towards the end of her reign. The consequences of Brexit. The impact of the pandemic, which had allowed government to assume powers that would have been unthinkable in peacetime. The weakening of the bonds that held the United Kingdom together.
Throughout her reign, the Queen went with the flow and accepted the advice of her prime ministers. In the modern world, it would have been all but impossible for a hereditary head of state to do otherwise.
But what happens if that advice can’t be trusted? As that grand old man William Gladstone had observed back in 1879, the British constitution “presumes more than any other the good sense and the good faith of those who work it”. The prorogation showed what can happen when those qualities are missing.
The Queen and the world: Rule Britannia
Queen Elizabeth was born in April 1926, very close to the moment when the British Empire reached its maximum scale. Britain’s economy had been wrecked by war, and its military power was not what it once had been. But it still ruled over nearly a quarter of the planet and a similar proportion of its population – roughly 450 million people.
Her grandfather was called emperor as well as king, and had the aura of majesty that came with his position at the top of the largest empire the world had ever seen. And as a teenager, she saw in the Second World War how troops from across the globe had rallied round the union flag to support her father, King and country, in their hour of need.
This was the world in which she grew up, and which shaped her ideas about her future role.
April 21 1947 marked her 21st birthday. She spent it in Cape Town, South Africa, and from there she made a radio broadcast to the Empire.
“I welcome the opportunity to speak to all the peoples of the British Commonwealth and Empire, wherever they live, whatever race they come from, and whatever language they speak… As I speak to you today from Cape Town I am six thousand miles from the country where I was born. But I am certainly not six thousand miles from home.
“Everywhere I have travelled… my parents, my sister and I have been taken to the heart of their people and made to feel that we are just as much at home here as if we had lived among them all our lives.
“That is the great privilege belonging to our place in the world-wide commonwealth… I am thinking especially today of all the young men and women who were born about the same time as myself and have grown up like me in terrible and glorious years of the second world war.
“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
Less than four months later, India – the jewel in the crown – achieved its independence. Dozens of other countries followed over the next 30 years, leaving the Empire and, for the most part, joining the Commonwealth. And the majesty of the Crown was inevitably dulled as Britain turned into a middle-ranking power, often uncertain of its role in the world.
But she remained true to her promise. The Commonwealth which she led would very likely have collapsed on a number of occasions without her determined support. More than that, at the time of her death, she was still head of state of 15 countries including Canada and Australia.
And she was routinely described as the United Kingdom’s most important soft power asset, someone who could attract large crowds wherever in the world she happened to visit, and in whose presence the most powerful presidents and potentates longed to be seen.
But was there a downside in all this? Did the pomp and circumstance of the Palace – the military bands, the golden coach, the glittering jewels – contribute to great power illusions and to the idea of British exceptionalism which led among other things to extravagant defence commitments and encouraged a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to the European Union?
Historian Caroline Elkins argues that the British have managed to gloss over the dark side of their imperial history – such as the Amritsar massacre of 1919, and the Mau Mau atrocities in the 1950s – and that memories of empire fired up the fantasies of those Brexiteers who imagined that the commonwealth could somehow replace continental Europe as the United Kingdom’s main trading partner. The Queen was the embodiment of Britain and its commonwealth, and must even unwittingly have played a part in that narrative.
The Commonwealth was certainly one of her highest priorities – the destination of hundreds of state visits and the object of her unswerving support. Three episodes show the strength of her engagement:
A state visit to Ghana had been planned for 1961. Kwame Nkrumah had been the first black African to lead his country to independence, and subsequently to move towards single-party rule. The atmosphere was tense in the run up to the Royal visit. Nkrumah arrested 50 members of the opposition; a bomb went off in Accra. The great question was whether the trip should be cancelled. Prime Minister Macmillan was in a quandary: he was terrified of harm coming to the Queen, but also fearful of the diplomatic consequences of her not turning up.
She made her position clear. As Macmillan recorded in his diary, she was impatient about “the attitude towards her to treat her as a woman, and a film star or mascot . . . She means to be a Queen, and not a puppet”.
The visit went ahead, and was a triumph. She was photographed dancing with President Nkrumah at a state ball – an image that flashed around the world and, among other things, caused outrage in apartheid South Africa.
A second highly charged moment came in 1979 when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was due to be held in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, at a time of intense violence across the border in what was then Rhodesia. Ahead of the meeting, New Zealand premier Robert Muldoon announced that both he and Margaret Thatcher were concerned a Royal visit might be too risky – there was real anxiety about the possibility of an attack on the Queen’s aircraft as it approached or left Lusaka.
The Palace immediately made it clear that the trip was going ahead whatever. Former Commonwealth Secretary General Chief Emeka Anyaoku cites this as a moment when – if handled badly – the whole institution could have collapsed.
Another came in 1986, when the Commonwealth was struggling to agree on sanctions to impose on apartheid South Africa. This fraught issue was to poison relationships until Nelson Mandela was freed in 1990, with Mrs Thatcher strongly opposed to the idea of curbing trade.
At a crucial moment in the debate, a group of key commonwealth nations gathered in London, and at what was called a working dinner at the Palace ahead of the meeting, the Queen made it clear that the Commonwealth could not be allowed to fail. Somehow an agreement was reached, and Mrs Thatcher compromised on sanctions.
Was it all worthwhile? Most people would be hard pressed to say what the Commonwealth actually did: the British government has never paid it much attention, not all its member states are models of good government, and its leadership in recent years has been unimpressive.
But on balance, the answer to the question is “yes”. The organisation today consists of 54 countries, and has actually been growing in number with the arrival of countries that had never actually been under British rule.
The break-up of empire could have been more rancorous without its presence: the Queen retained the affection of Commonwealth leaders even when they were hotly opposed to her Government’s policies.
It’s one of the few groups in which mature and emerging economies come together with a common agenda. And there are obvious issues in which it could still play a part – climate change and vaccine diplomacy being two examples.
Aside from the Commonwealth, the Queen also played a positive role in foreign affairs as head of state of the United Kingdom. Her ability to develop personal relationships with international leaders opened many diplomatic doors over the years, and on occasions did much more than that.
Here she had a number of advantages. One that came increasingly important over the years was her longevity. There was a golden thread linking her to great monarchs of the past – it wasn’t for nothing that people talked about a second Elizabethan age at the time of her coronation. But more than that, her story encompassed wartime leaders – Churchill, Eisenhower, de Gaulle – and many more. She had known 13 out of the last 14 US presidents – the exception was LBJ – and had got on well with nearly all of them.
Another quality was her discretion, and her political neutrality. Her interlocutors knew they could be absolutely certain that there would be no gossip about their discussion.
She was fluent in French. And she had a charming personal style with people she liked. She went riding with Ronald Reagan in Windsor Great Park – the British ambassador in Washington made it clear that the president saw this as just about the main point of his trip to the United Kingdom.
It didn’t hurt that this happy occasion was being planned in 1982 at the very moment when Britain was seeking US backing for its campaign in the Falkland Islands.
She got on well with the Obamas. Prime Minister David Cameron wrote that they had loved their state visit to the UK in 2011, and he went on “I knew how much that was down to the relationship they struck up with our head of state. The warmth of my visit to Washington in March 2012 was, I felt, largely due to the success of their London trip”.
There’s a letter from her in President Eisenhower’s Library in Kansas. It’s dated January 1960, and it’s formal in style, starting “Dear Mr President” and ending “yours sincerely, Elizabeth R”. But the content is unexpected.
The Queen wrote: “Seeing a picture of you in today’s newspaper standing in front of a barbecue grilling quail, reminded me that I had never sent you the recipe of the drop scones which I promised you at Balmoral.”
The letter puts that right. She writes that “though the quantities are for 16 people, when there are fewer, I generally put in less flour and milk but use the other ingredients as stated.”
She ends with a useful tip for the president. “I think the mixture needs a great deal of beating while making, and shouldn’t stand about for too long before cooking”.
She was sometimes criticised for not appearing to smile much on her royal tours, but she almost never fell asleep in the line of duty. The one recorded exception came on a visit to Dusseldorf in 2004, when she appeared to nod off briefly in a lecture on the medical use of magnets.
And of course as well as the informal she could lay on the big state occasion. President Xi and President Trump didn’t have that much in common, but both attempted to move heaven and earth to get a carriage trip up the Mall to the Palace on their state visits.
That’s one definition of soft power. Over the years, the possibility of a state visit was used as a valuable diplomatic tool by successive British governments.
Her state banquets were also something special. Biographer Robert Hardman reports that a former master of the Royal Household once told her of his concern that a particular dish could get cold more quickly if it was served on gold plate. She assured him: “People come here not to eat hot food, but to eat off gold plate”.
I remember a state banquet for France’s President Chirac in 1996. The service was brisk and the food was nothing special. But it was an awesome experience, made the more so at its conclusion when bagpipers marched round the long tables blasting the chandeliers with their wailing. Arguments about British beef exports to the continent were a subject of contention at the time: they could become less intense after occasions like this..
In May 2011 she made the first trip to the Republic of Ireland by a British monarch. The visit was full of symbolism: laying a wreath at Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance; walking out on to the pitch at Croke Park, the home of Gaelic football where the British had killed 14 civilian spectators in a revenge shooting in 1920; above all, her speech at the State Banquet at Dublin Castle, once the seat of British rule.
“With the benefit of historical hindsight,” she said,” we can all see things we would wish had been done differently or not at all”.
David Cameron wrote “It was incredibly moving to witness our monarch speak of forgiveness – not least as her own cousin, Lord Mountbatten, had been murdered by the IRA in 1979. Every carefully chosen word healed another wound of history. It was,” he concluded, “a lesson in reconciliation from the best.”
More followed from this initiative. The following year came her handshake with Martin McGuiness, the former commander in the Irish Republican Army – something that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier.
This example is the best counter to the argument that the long reign of Queen Elizabeth did nothing more than encourage the country to bask in a Disneyland of unreality. Yes, there were all those busbies, and those palace officials with weird sounding job titles.
But she did her job with much more consistency and integrity than we have come to expect from our political leaders. Her constant presence was a comfort during years of rapid and sometimes unsettling political change. Her personal relationships with dozens of international leaders were of real value to the country. And on the big occasion, such as the Dublin visit, she could help to shift diplomatic relations on to a better track.
What happens next?
With the Commonwealth, much will depend on how King Charles performs as its head. This is not a hereditary position, but no one dissented in 2018 when the Queen made it clear she wanted her son to take on the role. He will have to demonstrate as yet unproven diplomatic skills to give the institution the fresh impetus that it needs if it’s to play a constructive part in world affairs.
Where change is much more likely is in the role of the new King as head of state of far flung countries around the world. Barbados became a republic in 2021, and Jamaica is heading in the same direction.
There isn’t a strong republican movement in Canada, but Australia is a different story. It voted against republican status in 1999 not mainly out of loyalty to the Queen, but more because of a failure to agree on the alternative.
It now has another republican president, and although a second vote is unlikely before the next election in 2025, the direction of travel is clear.
Other countries are heading in the same direction, and why not? The current arrangements can be an embarrassment for the royal family itself, as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge found on their ill-judged tour of the Caribbean in the spring of 2022. The couple were met with protests in Belize; the prime minister of Jamaica told them that the country would be moving on to form a republic; and in Bahamas the royals were urged to issue a full apology for Britain’s role in the slave trade.
Back at home, the new King won’t have the same majesty that his mother inherited from her imperial forebears and worked so hard to sustain. Those big state occasions may not feel quite so magnificent: the crowds may not be quite so enthusiastic. The world in which his mother was crowned is gone forever. But he will still be holding the golden thread of history. And as the enormous throngs of people who turned out for his mother’s platinum jubilee showed, the Crown remains a central part of British identity. It’s likely to remain so for a good while to come.
So what in the end do we make of the second Elizabethan age? It turned out to be nothing like the fantasies that were expressed at the time of the coronation in 1953. But it would be quite wrong to portray this as a period of national decline from empire to offshore island.
In most respects, the United Kingdom is a more tolerant, richer, more liberal, more diverse, and less complacent society than it was back then. And Queen Elizabeth must take her share of credit as head of the nation for going with the flow, and helping the country along the path of change.
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This piece is the text version of The Second Elizabethan Age, a six-part podcast series hosted by Sir Richard Lambert, former Chair of the British Museum and editor of the Financial Times, about Queen Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign and the ways in which society changed under her rule.