This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 22, 1996
Queen Elizabeth II Turns 70
At last, it may all be getting under her skin: the nagging press, the embarrassing sons and their spendthrift wives, even the clamor about her wealth. In the past few months, Queen Elizabeth II has dropped her usual regal restraint, taken off the white, elbow-length gloves, and tried to straighten out a few problems herself. Charles and Diana's mudslinging is out of control? Send them each letters demanding they divorce. A business magazine estimates her wealth at $4.5 billion - too high for her liking when royal income is a sensitive public issue? Write the press commission demanding a retraction. A television shock show promotes itself with an ad showing Diana's famous wedding-day kiss - substituting a soccer star's face where Prince Charles should be? Complain to the advertising council and get it withdrawn.
It is a late-in-life conversion to fighting back. The Queen turns 70 on April 21 in what should be a time for quiet, satisfied reflection. After all, the British monarchy survives in an era when institutions seem to be crumbling at every turn. King Edward VIII remarked after his 1936 abdication that he "belonged to a profession that has been losing ground for centuries," but his niece has so far waged a successful rearguard battle to protect what remains of royal prerogative. In doing so, Elizabeth provides a living link to Britain's more glorious past, a historical thread that runs through much of the century. She has seen Russia evolve from ally to enemy and back again. She has seen apartheid-riven South Africa ejected from her beloved Commonwealth, and then welcomed back in as a democratic nation. The Queen is a survivor. She has been booed by rioting Quebecers, who virtually chased her from the province in 1964, and persevered long enough to watch separatist leaders speak of her with affection in the 1990s, proclaiming their desire for an independent Quebec to remain in the Commonwealth.
It is no small feat to keep a 1,000-year-old tradition alive in the modern age of celebrity, where powerful camera lenses pry into private lives, and cash entices former servants and lovers into coughing up intimate details for tell-all books that can destroy reputations. But, impressively, Elizabeth has reigned without betraying her privacy. Bookshelves groan with biographies, all of which share one thing: the Queen's own voice and opinions are never included. The only Elizabeth her subjects hear is the "official" monarch who delivers scripted state speeches (other than last fall when a duplicitous Montreal radio host tricked her into thinking she was talking to Jean Chrétien - but then, the Queen was not about to confess personal feelings to a Canadian prime minister, either). She seems driven by the belief that, to be successful, the Royal Family must do its public duties with a smile and otherwise keep its nose clean. So she gambles on the horses at Ascot, or races pigeons, the kind of age-old royal pastimes that led a biographer of King George V to complain: "For 17 years, he did nothing but kill animals and stick in stamps."
It is a lesson long lost on the next generation of royals, who cannot - or do not wish to - stay out of the public eye. If the Queen seems feistier about defending her image these days, it is because the monarchy itself has seldom been under such attack. Even the glossy magazines published for her 70th birthday have been a little less effusive on this occasion. There are no "happy and glorious" headlines. The photos are weighted in favor of the early years. On this royal birthday, Britons seem to be looking back with nostalgia, averting their gaze from the personal wreckage at the House of Windsor.
To look ahead would be folly. Republican mutterings - once held to be, if not seditious, then certainly impolite - are now openly heard in Britain. There is no sign yet of a political tide to do away with the monarchy, but the prospect of Elizabeth being the last queen is no longer a preposterous suggestion. Elizabeth has not failed as a monarch. Most Britons agree that she has been dutiful about a rather boring job, a recent poll putting her approval rating at 74 per cent. Her shortcomings, most would agree, are as a mother. It is the junior royals, playing out their lurid private lives in public, who have cast a pall over the monarchy's future. The Queen's children left home but they never grew up, and the antics of Chuck and Di, Andy and Fergie have been a gift to republicans arguing for an end to the monarchy.
"All these scandals are being used by republicans, and they resonate in ways that the old political arguments never could," says Sarah Bradford, a royal biographer who has just published Elizabeth, an exhaustive study of the Queen's life. Her book tour has taken her to small towns and big cities across Britain, and she admits being surprised at the depths of disgust with the Royal Family. "I've done a lot of civic events in the heart of conservative Britain - sheriff's breakfasts where you eat black pudding with middle-class business people, that sort of thing - and I am astounded by the number of people who tell me that they are now offended by the Royal Family, or admit to being republicans. I think the current troubles will someday be seen as merely a dip in the monarchy's fortunes. But I'm no longer sure."
There is a case to be made that this is just one more swing in fortune's pendulum for the Royal Family. The English monarchy has had bouts of unpopularity over 12 centuries, and its traditional enemies remain cautious about the prospect of a republic now. The class warfare spirit of the Labour Party's radical left is in decline, muzzled by vigorous new leader Tony Blair. Britain's muckraking tabloid press may cater to working-class readers, but it also relies on the royals for regular doses of sex and sleaze, and an anti-monarchy crusade would kill its golden goose.
But the polls still bite. The numbers show an undeniably drastic drop in support for the monarchy. Only one-third of Britons believe the country will still have a monarch in 50 years, according to a February survey by MORI, Britain's leading pollsters. In 1990, two-thirds thought so. Over the last decade, the margin of those who believe Britain would be worse off without the monarchy has fallen to just 2 to 1, from 15 to 1. "These swings in opinion are the biggest we've ever recorded," says MORI chairman Bob Worcester. And that is under a queen who remains popular. The decline would conceivably accelerate under Prince Charles, who nearly half of Britons believe will be a bad king. More than half the adults under 24 were indifferent on whether Britain would be better off without its Royal Family. "The monarchy," says Worcester, "is irrelevant to the coming generation."
So Britain is in a peculiar state. Support for republicanism is significant and rising, but it is not reflected in any serious political push to dump the Royal Family. Where, the Queen might ask as she tours her crotchety kingdom, do all these republican subjects lurk? And why are royalists so reluctant to rally to the crown?
It is another day in "the provinces" for the Queen. She and Prince Philip have taken the royal train to Gloucestershire in the west of England for a half day of public events. "Provincial visits used to merit banner headlines in the centre of The Times, and the text of the king's speech would be reported in full," remembers Sir Edward Ford, 86, a onetime assistant private secretary to both Queen Elizabeth and her father, George VI, before her. But on this day, the Queen will encounter only a handful of the curious, and one tightly herded band of schoolchildren.
Small crowds do not lessen the security precautions, especially with the IRA ceasefire over. The day's first appearance is at a wetlands and waterfowl conservation area in Slimbridge, and police divers have swept the shallow ponds for possible bombs. The staff are sweeping up, too. They have blasted all bird droppings from the path of the Wildfowl Walkabout, although the Queen takes the precaution of wearing knee-high black boots. There are no speeches. Elizabeth simply strolls along, one blue glove off in order to sprinkle seeds, which the ducks and swans promptly hoover off the pavement. And then, as if on cue for the grateful photographers, there comes a loud beating of wings and a flock of geese lift off over the pond, passing over the Queen's blue-hatted head in an impromptu royal flypast.
That's about it for hoopla. The tiny crowd gets only a wave from the Queen as her limousine pulls away for the day's second event. At the Royal Agricultural College in nearby Cirencester, there is a closed drinks hour (gin mixed with Dubonnet for the Queen), a luncheon, and then a quick tour of the school. Perhaps it is the steady rain that keeps people away, but on this day in Cirencester, a city of 17,000, fewer than a dozen people come out to meet their Queen. One of them is Iris Halfpenny, 70, and she isn't even from Cirencester. Iris is a royal groupie who has seen the Queen 40 times in the last eight years by her own estimate. As virtually the only person for the long barricades to hold back, she gets her picture taken pressing a bunch of freesias upon the Queen ("I know they're her favorite," says Iris). "For me?" the Queen asks, feigning delight for probably the millionth time. It is a forced, slightly embarrassing encounter, enlivened only by a surprised delegation of visiting Romanian farmers who stumble upon the scene.
Of course, the local papers report the visit to the county as a marvellous success. "Her dazzling smile never dimmed for an instant," proclaimed the Gloucestershire Echo the next day over four pages of coverage. "In return, we did her proud. It may have been grey but there was a real ray of sunshine in the county yesterday. And we wouldn't have missed it for the world." The Echo's surreal account would have been right at home alongside its stories from royal visits of years ago, all of them yellowing now in the archives.
Spritzing, coifing and primping are the order of the day this afternoon in the south Wales town of Caerphilly. Those getting the beauty treatment lie on their backs while a brush is luxuriously dragged through their reddish hair. They all have reddish hair. That happens when you're all from the same breed - in this case, corgis, the line of short-legged Welsh dogs so fawned over by Queen Elizabeth. And this day, fussing corgi owners have brought dozens of their pets together in a somewhat sharp-smelling gymnasium for the South Wales Corgi Club's Championship Show.
Corgis and the Royal Family are inseparably linked in popular imagination, like cigars and Winston Churchill. A besotted Princess Elizabeth was given her first corgi - Rozavel Golden Eagle, better known as Dookie - as a seven-year-old in 1933. As an adult she breeds them, and a pack of corgis roaming through Buckingham Palace has become a fixture of the Queen's domestic image. "I didn't like them much," recalls Sir Edward. "They were always in the way and they barked a lot." But there is no Royal Family without corgis, and when producers were making a made-for-television movie of Diana: Her True Story, they paid breeder Joy Tonkyn $165 a day to cast one of her corgis. "The royals just wouldn't look right without them," asserts Tonkyn, although there is general agreement in Caerphilly that the Queen can't handle her dogs. "I admire the Queen very much, but not as a corgi person," sniffs Idris Jones, the club president.
Now, the breed, like the House of Windsor, is in trouble. "The royal connection made the breed a success," says corgi historian Laurie Needham. "Twenty years ago, it was one of the most popular breeds, but there has been a great falloff since." In fact, the fall in affection for corgis matches the slide in the Royal Family's popularity. There were only 200 registered corgis in Britain when the family got their first pet. Once Princess Elizabeth's father was crowned king, the number jumped fivefold. The numbers kept rising during the post-Second World War bloom of esteem for the House of Windsor - 5,021 in 1953, the year of Elizabeth's coronation, up to 8,933 in 1960. The subsequent decline has seen the number of newly registered corgis gradually return to 1930s levels. "Young people are just not coming into the breed," says a mournful-looking Jones. "They want more glamorous breeds now: longhairs or macho dogs like rottweilers."
Wales is a hostile principality for the royals, anyway. Welsh nationalism is stubbornly anti-English, and Charles remains a controversial choice for Prince of Wales. "I am not a Welsh nationalist but I don't know anyone who likes Charles," says Jones. "I hope the Queen lives forever."
Yet again, there is something about royalty that tugs the spirit, even in Wales. North of Caerphilly, the back roads lead over the Black Mountains into what would surely be a beautiful descent towards Hay-on-Wye were the fog not so thick and the rain so blinding. In this village in the late 1970s, a local secondhand-bookstore owner created a fuss with a tongue-in-cheek pamphlet that called for independence from the English crown. Richard Booth had been a catalyst for making Hay-on-Wye a prosperous mecca of used bookshops, but people were angry at the pamphlet. Some threw rocks through his windows.
But even the dishevelled Booth was not about to abandon all royal connections. With some friends, he proclaimed the New Kingdom of Hay-on-Wye - with himself as King Richard, of course - and they started selling titles, everything from knighthoods to dukedoms for up to $110 each. Visitors loved it. "We've sold hundreds of titles," he says. "I have no idea why someone would want to be the Duchess of Hay. There just seems to be some instinctive desire people have for a royal title."
Perhaps the deeply conservative streak of the British is what keeps Elizabeth on her throne, despite whatever they think of the kids. There has not been an English revolution since the 17th century. This year, in fact, marks the 350th anniversary of the victory by Oliver Cromwell's parliamentary army (Roundheads) over the royalist forces of King Charles I (Cavaliers). On a recent Sunday, regiments from the two sides clashed again in the medieval square of the English Cotswolds town of Stow-on-the-Wold, this time in a re-enactment of the decisive battle that led to Charles's capture.
In high boots and a purple tunic, Andrew Fenn is a Cavalier today, and he doesn't like it. "Normally I fight as a parliamentarian - that's where my political loyalties lie - and it rubs me the wrong way to play a royalist," says Fenn, a genial oil company executive from Oxford who has been a mock weekend warrior for a decade. Fenn may normally spend his time "killing" royalists, but he still believes the crown is important to Britain. "The family may not be doing a great job now," he says, "but they stand for too much of our history and heritage to get rid of them."
"That's not where the debate is at," retorts Anthony Barnett, a strategy adviser to the constitutional reform group Charter 88. "People always say, 'Where are the Roundheads and Cavaliers?' but the debate has shifted away from the issue of the crown to another taboo subject: the constitution." In a trend that might frighten constitutionally traumatized Canadians, demands that Britain write down its constitution have increased this decade. "The secretive old boys' club and mandarins that have governed Britain are coming to their end," says Barnett. "We need a written constitution, and one of the things it should define is exactly what the monarch's powers are."
That would only be so much talk if Tony Blair's Labour Party were not 30 poll points ahead of Prime Minister John Major's Tory government, which last week suffered a crushing byelection defeat that cut Major's parliamentary majority to one seat. Blair has dropped the socialist party's old tax-and-spend shibboleths and has indicated that, as prime minister, he would not turn back the free-market clock. Instead, he has seized upon constitutional reform as a way of establishing reformist, modernizing credentials. Blair talks of devolving more power to Scotland and Wales, and he has served notice that he will challenge the privileges of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Those steps cut close to the monarchy itself, and once the constitutional system is opened up, says Barnett, "the monarchy won't be able to take the strain."
Yet Blair is not about to hand an issue to the Tories, who are already desperately accusing him of plotting to tear down British institutions. None of the unofficial Labour manifestoes now being published risks a direct attack on the Royal Family. And when Labour's critic for Welsh affairs recently criticized Prince Charles's personal behavior, Blair made him apologize. "The Labour Party cannot afford to look silly," says one Blair adviser. "And the Royal Family is seen as a very silly issue."
So republican plotting remains an almost underground activity. In good English tradition, a group of mostly lawyers and journalists has formed a republican dinner club. The Common Sense Club meets once a month (in an upstairs salon of a French restaurant - "good food but you'd better like Edith Piaf," warns a waiter), where all conversations are off the record so that no guests or members get in trouble with their employers. But a recent dinner conversation reveals that Common Sense members revel in each royal disgrace as extra assistance for their cause. There was great glee over the potential public relations backlash that could hit the Royal Family if it proceeds with plans for nine days of official mourning after the eventual death of the 95-year-old Queen Mother. How soon after she died, they wondered over coffee, would it be considered appropriate to remind the nation of her anti-Churchill feelings in the 1930s?
Sir Edward views the republican threat with more equanimity. He served "the outfit," as he calls the Royal Family, during the Queen's "salad years, the first 15 years of her reign when she was young and beautiful and the press did not focus so hard on the foibles of people in public life." The most hurtful criticism offered in those days came when Lord Altrincham published a magazine in 1957, in which he called the Queen's speaking style "a pain in the neck," and described her courtiers as "the tweedy sort" who had failed to change with the times. "Perfectly true. We were tweedy," says Sir Edward, who is sharp and dignified to the core.
But his eyes fix on the far wall of his study as he considers what has gone wrong with the young royals. "How much they saw their mother depended upon public duties and demands, and they certainly didn't see as much of their parents as most families would," he says. "Even at meals, there was always household staff standing around, and Princess Anne, I know, was quite resentful of this. But it is sad, because both the Queen and her mother take the view that the monarchy is a family affair, and that other members have parts to play in it. Some of them do it very well, don't forget," he says, smiling. "The Royal Family has always had some very funny characters among its junior members over the course of history."
In late 1992, Sir Edward wrote to Sir Robert Fellowes, the Queen's private secretary, to commiserate over her difficult times. Diana: Her True Story had been published, with its portrayal of the House of Windsor as cold and dysfunctional. Lawyers had spent weeks haggling over the terms of separation between the Yorks - Prince Andrew and the former Sarah Ferguson, who never seemed able to swap her life as a partying "chalet girl" for royal decorum. And the Queen's home at Windsor had been badly damaged by fire. The cost of repairs would force her to open Buckingham Palace to tourists, charging $17 admission to raise money. What a pity, Sir Edward wrote to his colleague, that the hoped-for annus mirabilis had turned into an annus horribilis.
"I suppose he was tickled by the phrase and passed it on," says Sir Edward. The Queen liked it, too, and used it in her year-end message, the words entering the popular lexicon. Yet that tinge of self-pity is about all the insight one gets into the Queen's personal feelings. "She is temperamentally suited to the role," says biographer Bradford, who has spent 10 years researching first George VI, then his daughter. "She is very self-contained. She is not a worrier. She is not particularly imaginative. She doesn't read books, unless they're about horses. She is responsible and dedicated, and she will never retire."
Elizabeth's popularity should see that the monarchy survives her reign. Bitter fights over the crown's place in Britain probably lie ahead, though they will most likely await the coronation of the much less sympathetic, much more lampoonable, Charles. But the demise of the English crown is not a sure bet. In time, the British may discover as Canadians have that writing a constitution is not the wonderful nation-building experience it is sometimes cracked up to be. Give the British a generation of constitutional anguish and the reign of Queen Elizabeth II - for all its moments of comic opera - may someday be remembered as a happy era, the time of the Peaceful Kingdom.
Maclean's April 22, 1996