Driving west down the M4 towards Windsor, as I have most days this past fortnight, I am still struck by the huge turreted bulk of the castle, looming over the landscape as it has for the 900 or so years since William the Conqueror built his motte. It is an astonishing sight, gleaming white in the sun, dark on a cloudy day, as impressive as its near contemporary in northern Syria, the Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, which I visited three months ago.
Today at Windsor the besiegers are not Saracen hordes but tourists: goggling, photographing, buying souvenirs and contributing to the castle upkeep. (I couldn’t help noticing that a portrait postcard of Her Majesty in purple hat, Hanoverian silver curls and broad grin had her birthdate, 21 April 1926, printed on the back – something no modern celebrity is in the habit of doing.)
It’s impossible not to remember the television images of the castle silhouetted by leaping flames on that November night in 1992 – the Queen’s annus horribilis – which seemed to symbolise the monarchy under attack. The then national heritage secretary, Peter Brooke, blithely stepped up to promise that the nation would pay for the castle’s restoration, a suggestion that was received by the public with a resounding “No. Why should we?” The outrage was prompted by the revelation that the Queen had not been paying income tax like the rest of us, an exemption secretly negotiated by her father, George VI, after the abdication crisis in 1936, and unwisely agreed to by the then government. Public disgust at the antics of the Queen’s children added fuel to the fire. Republicans revelled in it; monarchists were aghast.
Now the Queen has asked for more money from the civil list, derived from the revenues of the Crown Estate, handed over to the government by her great-great-great-grandfather George III in return for an annual income. Every time this happens there is a rumpus, most of it predictable and boring, this time lightened by Frank Skinner’s apparent comparison of the value of the Queen per head of the population – 69p – to the cost of buying a plastic crocodile on eBay. Whether he thought the Queen or the crocodile the better value for money, I don’t know, as I only heard of this and didn’t read the article. So if I have got this wrong, Frank, I’m sorry.
Actually, this controversy, if controversy it really is, has come at a good moment for the Queen, when so many other calls on the taxpayer’s purse seem unjustifiable. How much did the taxpayer’s share of the Wimbledon hospitality suite for the partly public-owned RBS come to? I bet it made that crocodile look cheap – and who were they entertaining? Why didn’t they assign a 40 per cent share of tickets to the public by lottery? At least we would get something out of such profligacy. As of now, the list of how we are being taken to the cleaners financially is staggering: the BBC’s pensions, handbags and bouquets, the MPs’ . . . No, I really can’t bear to go on listing the snack bars and duck houses.
Neither BBC directors nor MPs actually contribute anything to the general happiness of Britain, or its attraction for foreigners and tourists. The bankers succeed only in infuriating the natives. And this is before we go into the annual cost to us of the hordes of consultants, quangos and PR people whom ministers and their civil servants seem to find essential in order to govern us. Too depressing.
Then there is Gordon Brown. One wonders, sometimes, if he knows or cares that Britain has a head of state who is not a politician. Certainly the recent fiasco over the D-Day ceremonies seems to indicate that he does not. In some ways, it was a good day for the Queen. He got booed on the beaches, she got to go to the Derby. At least that other Scottish Brown, John, supported Queen Victoria. Gordon, I’m told, didn’t even show up for the Braemar games, a tradition for guests at Balmoral. Nor, apparently, did his predecessor. I was told why but had better not say.
In fairness, I think there is a good case for limiting the civil list to the Queen and her husband. The Queen has a private hereditary fortune plus the revenues of the Duchy of Lancaster from which she can fund her children; the Prince of Wales is amply provided for by the revenues of the Duchy of Cornwall and can pay for his wife and sons. Security is a different matter, as is royal travel and entertainment in the public service. But jaunts for an extended royal family, and the younger royalty in particular, should not be paid for.
Republicans may argue all they like, but the more ghastly, greedy, interfering and overbearing politicians appear to be, the more important it seems to have a constitutional head of state who is nothing to do with them.
Sarah Bradford is a historian and the author of “Elizabeth: a Biography of Her Majesty the Queen” (Penguin, £9.99)