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Queen Elizabeth II with a group of local children during her state visit to Mexico, February-March 1975. (Photo by Serge Lemoine/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Public service: strong as a yak

Public service: strong as a yak


Richard Lambert considers the Queen’s commitment to public service and how she played the part of monarch

Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Richard Lambert, who was Chair of the British Museum and editor of the Financial Times from 1991 to 2001 reflects on her 70-year reign and the ways in which society changed under her rule. 


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.

On the royal barge ‘The Spirit of Chartwell’ during the Thames Diamond Jubilee River Pageant 2012

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. 

Queen Elizabeth II pays respect in front of Dunblane Primary School, where a gunman shot 16 children and a teacher on March 13, 1996

“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. 

Inspecting the damage to the Great Hall of Windsor Castle, 1992

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.

Queen Elizabeth II rides sidesaddle during Trooping the Colour ceremony

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.  

The Queen And Prince Philip together during the Royal Windsor Horse Show, 1982

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.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip walk through the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parlaiment, 2007

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.

Credits: written by Richard Lambert, produced and sound designed by Oliver Sanders, executive producer Jasper Corbett

Photographs Getty Images