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Trouble in the House of Windsor

New works by the journalists Tina Brown and Robert Hardman question whether the monarchy can survive without radical reform.

By Richard J Evans

As we approach the Platinum Jubilee, celebrating the Queen’s unprecedented 70 years on the throne, we face the prospect of drowning under a flood of new books published to mark the occasion. Among the earliest in the field are the two under review. Apart from their price, their length, and the fact that they both depend heavily on interviews (attributed and unattributed) with members of the royal household, politicians, and people in the know, they could hardly be more different from one another.

Queen of Our Times is Robert Hardman’s third book about the Queen, following Our Queen (2012) and Queen of the World (2018), both linked to television films of the same name. An experienced commentator for the BBC on royal occasions, Hardman is a former royal correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and now writes for the Daily Mail. He knows more than most about the royal family, and has interviewed pretty well every member of it except the Queen herself.

We tend in this country to treat the monarchy as if its sole function is to serve as head of state of the United Kingdom, but from the Queen’s perspective, faithfully represented in this book, the Commonwealth is almost as important. The media present the incessant overseas tours undertaken by members of the royal family as foreign trips, but from Buckingham Palace’s point of view, they are an essential part of trying to steady the British monarchy’s increasingly wobbly position as head of state of 14 other countries apart from the UK, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as a decreasing number of states in the Caribbean.

Hardman describes these royal tours in all their tedious detail, along with Commonwealth conferences and many other events involving the Queen’s global role. He gets hot under the collar when he describes the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s saying that the Commonwealth can only move forward if it acknowledges its imperial past, ignoring (as he sees it) that the Commonwealth is actually a “counter to” imperialism. However, he also confesses that the Commonwealth “is self-evidently linked to the British empire, since that is where it began”. As the empire’s links with slavery and the slave trade increasingly come into prominence, it is becoming more and more difficult to justify the Queen’s continuing sovereignty over parts of the world where modern society was founded on slavery, as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s recent tour of the Caribbean so painfully revealed.

[See also: Leave the Queen to cosplay Lord of the Rings in peace]

A spirit of hushed reverence pervades the book. Hardman can always be relied on to defend the Queen and her family against interlopers such as Diana Spencer and Meghan Markle, and take a critical view of members of the family who don’t follow the rules such as Prince Harry. Throughout the book, the author adopts a determinedly genteel tone, referring to Christine Keeler, for example, as a “dancer”, although she was a bit more than that, and describing Princess Margaret tactfully as “free-spirited” and “mercurial”. He defends Prince Charles’s long premarital relationship with the Duchess of Cornwall, and leaves out anything that might impinge negatively on his reputation or position as heir to the throne. Hardman is punctilious in his use of titles: it’s always “Diana, Princess of Wales”, never the less correct but more commonly used “Princess Diana”. He is a bit less secure in his grasp of foreign names and titles, however, referring for example to “King Wilhelm of Holland” when he means King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands.

Hardman expends a good deal of effort on correcting what he regards as the mistakes and misrepresentations perpetrated by the Netflix series The Crown in its depiction of life in the royal family, though it is avowedly a work of fiction. Although Hardman is a journalist by profession, he is justifiably critical of the behaviour of the press on a number of occasions, particularly when it hounded Princess Diana (sorry, Diana, Princess of Wales), eventually leading to her death in a car accident while trying to evade the paparazzi. As he notes, the newspapers hardly covered themselves with glory when they reported Prince Philip’s remark to British exchange students in China (“If you stay here much longer, you’ll all be slitty-eyed”) with headlines such as “Philip Gets It All Wong” and “Queen Velly Velly Angry”. On the other hand, Hardman is critical of Harry and Meghan’s snubbing of the press, to which he ascribes a large part of the blame for their troubles.

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What’s missing above all from this anodyne account is any attempt to explain the enduring public popularity of the Queen and the reasons why the monarchy has never seemed in danger, unlike so many other European monarchies, even in its gravest moments of crisis. Nor does it deal with the monarchy’s falling approval rate among the younger age-groups, where a 2021 opinion poll found that more 18-24-year-olds wanted an elected head of state than supported the continuation of the hereditary principle.

Hardman provides context only in the most general way, which can often be misleading. In the debate over fox-hunting, for instance, it’s “the rural interest” that is described as being in favour, as if everyone who lived in the countryside was a passionate defender of the practice. We hear about “the people of Wales” giving young Princess Elizabeth a doll’s house, and we are told that Princess Margaret’s birth at Glamis Castle “went down well in Scotland”. Real, differentiated historical context is never provided.

Hardman does touch on the stickier political moments of the Queen’s reign, from her appointment of Alec Douglas-Home as prime minister to her rubber-stamping of Boris Johnson’s illegal attempt to prorogue parliament in order to push through Brexit, but criticisms of her role in these and other instances are smoothly rejected before we pass on to the next royal tour. It is all very respectful and unexciting, and I have to confess that as I was reading this book one afternoon, I gently nodded off.

There’s no chance of anyone falling asleep over Tina Brown’s The Palace Papers, which is anything but deferential in tone. Brown comes to the subject not from the forelock-tugging ranks of “royal correspondents” but from the gossipy world of television and the movies, glossy celebrity magazines and fashion journalism. But she also has a serious side, shown in her six-year tenure as editor of the New Yorker in the 1990s. This is her second book on the royals, following a biography of Diana published in 2007, a history of gin, and The Vanity Fair Diaries.

The book centres not so much on the Queen (“Her Maj”) but on members of the wider royal family. It is gloriously irreverent, racily written and often very funny. The early chapters on the long affair between Prince Charles and Camilla read like a non-fiction version of Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire Chronicles. “Camilla’s allure” as a young woman, it seems, “was her husky baritone voice, candid blue eyes, curvaceous figure and smiling accessibility”. When she rode to hounds, “she always looked whip-crackingly equestrian in thigh-hugging jodhpurs, crisp white stock and taut black snood”.

Later on, after he had married the virginal Diana, who had promptly fulfilled her intended function by giving birth to two boys, Prince Charles continued to hunt with Camilla, who remained enticing “in her tight white breeches and shiny black dominatrix boots”. The chapter charting Camilla’s transition from hated interloper to future queen consort carries the title “A New Duchess in the Winners’ Enclosure”.

[See also: Why we must allow the sovereign to retire]

Brown prints extracts from the notorious tapes of a phone conversation between Charles and Camilla in 1989, leaked to the press in 1993 (“CAMILLA: You’re awfully good at feeling your way along. CHARLES: Oh Stop! I want to feel my way along you, all over you and up and down you and in and out. CAMILLA: Oh! CHARLES: Particularly in and out. CAMILLA: Oh, that’s just what I need at the moment”, and so on). The “Squidgy tapes”, a recording of a phone conversation between Diana and her long-time friend James Gilbey, raised suspicions of adultery on her side as well. The book by Andrew Morton, Diana: Her True Story, “in essence her revenge memoir”, published in 1992, led to many months of hounding by the press and hate-mail to Camilla from members of the public.

Diana’s confessional interview with the BBC journalist Martin Bashir, revelatory even if obtained under false pretences, was the first in a long series of calamitous television interviews with individual royals, including Prince Charles’s with Jonathan Dimbleby, his brother Andrew’s more recent one with Emily Maitlis, and Harry and Meghan’s with Oprah Winfrey. Brown rejects the idea that royal advisers were antediluvian amateurs in the modern world of tabloid journalism, but such disasters don’t make her denial very convincing.

Brown gleefully chronicles the private feuds which led to the break-up of the Wales’s marriage and Princes William and Harry bitterly resenting Camilla’s role in it. Sensitive and emotionally needy, Charles was the wrong sort of partner for Diana. The Duke of Edinburgh apparently just thought Charles was “wet”. But Brown also makes the Queen responsible for the emotional neglect of her eldest son, as she preferred reading her red government dispatch boxes to playing with him when he was a child, and left him behind as she went on long overseas tours. It’s never easy, Brown concedes, for a working mother to set the right balance between life and work, but the Queen’s “ostriching” when confronted with emotional problems was, she points out, not untypical of the indifference and stiff upper lip that were behavioural norms among the English upper classes.

Despite this, The Palace Papers presents a sympathetic portrait of the Queen. We learn more about her no-nonsense, matter-of-fact character in a single chapter than we do in the nearly 700 pages of Hardman’s entire book. She reserves outward displays of emotion for animals, it seems. “Dogs and horses are her true emotional peers. They have no interest in her rank, love her for herself, and never bore her by asking what Winston Churchill was really like.”

Nothing, one courtier told Brown, was less plausible in Stephen Frears’ movie The Queen than the scene in which the sovereign, played by Helen Mirren, is walking in the Balmoral estate after Diana’s death, close to despair, when she suddenly spots a noble stag in the heather. Her expression turns to joy; it’s a kind of epiphany. The courtier laughed when describing the scene. “The Queen would have shot it,” he said.

Brown’s tone softens still further when she deals with Princess Margaret, whose predicament as the resentful second child she treats sympathetically. Often depressed, and a heavy drinker in her younger years, Margaret was emotionally volatile and demanding, and on one occasion threatened to throw herself out of her bedroom window, as one of her circle told the Queen in alarm. “Carry on with your house party,” the Queen replied. “Her bedroom is on the ground floor.”

The social world revealed in these two books is one of inherited wealth and privilege and above all a casual and unquestioning sense of entitlement. It is a world wholly alien to the majority of modern Britons in lifestyle, mores and attitudes. And it is a world of mind-boggling profligacy. Following her daughter’s accession to the throne, did the Queen Mother really need to live in “what she called ‘a horrid little house’– the splendid four-storey, 19th-century residence Clarence House”, her needs catered to by a staff of 60, including “three footmen serving full-blown teas fit for a cruise ship, and three or four more waiters at lunch”, with a fleet of five or six cars at her disposal, and an annuity (even in the mid-1950s) that ran to £643,000 and was overspent by a factor of eight in every year?

The sheer extravagance of some of the royals almost beggars belief, in contrast to the thriftiness of the Queen, who is rumoured to wander the corridors of Buckingham Palace switching off lights left blazing unnecessarily.

Both of these books briefly consider the future of the monarchy after the inevitable passing of the current sovereign. If the younger generation is to be weaned away from its republicanism, the monarchy needs to be reformed in ways far more radical than the gradual changes introduced by the present Queen, faithfully recorded by Hardman. It seems clear enough that when he takes over Prince Charles will slim the operation down, dispensing with the services of some of the minor royals and disposing of a number of the family’s palaces and castles. The honours system is likely to be reformed, with the now embarrassingly titled Order of the British Empire becoming the Order of British Excellence, and more besides.

Predictions of the monarchy’s demise following the accession of a prince who has often been unpopular and is disliked by many for interfering in the world of politics with his “spider memos” and public utterances on architecture and alternative medicine, seem wide of the mark, however. Brown may be right when she optimistically concludes that Charles III’s “reign will be too short to acquire his mother’s ingrained rings of collective national memory, but a monarch whose Aston Martin runs on a bioethanol blend of cheese and English white wine by-products will find a different way to be loved”.

Richard J Evans is regius professor emeritus of history at Cambridge University

The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor
Tina Brown
Cornerstone, 592pp, £20

Queen of Our Times: The Life of Elizabeth II
Robert Hardman
Macmillan, 704pp, £20

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This article appears in the 27 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sturgeon's Nuclear Dilemma