The Art of being Queen

Through decades of scandals and crisis, Queen Elizabeth II, the world's longest-serving regent, has kept the British monarchy secure in the affections of the British people. Biographer Andrew Gimson explores behind the palace walls and explains the mystery of the most famous and least known woman in the world.

Elizabeth II has reigned for almost 68 years, longer than any other Queen in history. She has through great difficulties and changes kept the British monarchy secure in the affections of the British people, and has recently dealt, with seeming decisiveness, with the problem posed by the desire of her grandson, Harry, and his wife, Meghan, more formally known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, to lead a more independent life. So it is natural to suppose that the Queen must have much to teach us about the art of management, and especially about crisis management.

But the lessons are not exactly what one would expect. The Queen is not a manager. She shrinks from confrontation, and would much rather go for a walk with her dogs. Her practice is to allow her Private Secretary to manage things for her. The holder of that office is supposed to be her eyes and ears, and to urge upon her whatever action may be required. Management is delegated to the palace machine, which runs everyday matters almost immaculately, but like all managements can found itself caught out by unexpected events, and especially by family troubles which courtiers can hardly be expected to avert. Sir Edward Young, Private Secretary since 2017, is blamed by some at Buckingham Palace for failing to warn the Queen, and perhaps even failing to realise himself, that Harry and Meghan had decided to start a new life in Canada – information well known to the couple’s friends.

As far as family affairs are concerned, the Queen has for almost her entire reign been able to rely on another manager with the qualities needed to grip a crisis: her own husband. When she married Prince Philip of Greece in 1947, he was a young naval officer, with the drive and ability to get to the top of his profession on merit. He had served with distinction in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, but had to make the sacrifice of renouncing the career he loved when his wife succeeded to the throne on the death of her father, King George VI, aged only 56, in February 1952.

Prince Philip brought clarity to the business of “the firm”, as he termed the royal family. While the Queen was reticent, he liked to talk things through, and to state things plainly. “It is a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarch,” he declared during a visit to Canada in 1969. “It doesn’t. It exists in the interests of the people. If at any time any nation decides that the system is unacceptable, then it is up to them to change it.”

Right up to his retirement from official duties in 2017, Prince Philip, who is now 98, retained the ability to get straight to the point. At a lunch in 2015 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a photographer was taking too long to snap the Prince with a group of veterans, and received the royal command, which amused those around him, “Just take the f***ing picture.”

The Queen is equally determined, but in a quite different idiom. On her 21st birthday in April 1947, Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, declared in a radio broadcast from South Africa, where she was taking part in a royal tour with her parents and younger sister:

“There is a motto which has been borne by many of my ancestors – a noble motto – ‘I serve’ [‘Ich dien’]. Those words were an inspiration to many bygone heirs to the throne when they made their knightly dedication as they came to manhood. I cannot do quite as they did. But through the inventions of science I can do what was not possible for any of them. I can make my solemn act of dedication with a whole empire listening. I should like to make that dedication now. It is very simple. 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.”

The key phrase here was “my whole life whether it be long or short”. In what management gurus would nowadays call her “mission statement”, she was declaring that there was no hint of short-termism in her outlook. She is now 93, and continues to live by what she said on her 21st birthday, though the actual words had been written for her by Dermot Morrah, a distinguished member of The Times’s editorial staff, who had been commissioned to draft them by her father’s Private Secretary, Sir Tommy Lascelles.But what about those references to the British Empire? Almost as she spoke, that empire was dissolving, and soon there was no “great imperial family” left. The Queen, however, remains devoted to her role as Head of the Commonwealth, the voluntary association of, today, 53 countries with a total of 2.4 billion people. Almost all these countries once belonged to the British Empire, and in 16 of them, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Jamaica, the Queen remains head of state. For several decades, her attachment to this body was regarded as a bit old-fashioned by British politicians who insisted the future lay in the European Union. Now Britain is leaving the EU, and wants to strengthen global trading links, it seems the Queen may have been ahead of her time.

Viewers of The Crown, the admirable Netflix series about her reign, will have been struck, among much else, by the powers of endurance required to go on performing royal duties which are not, in themselves, all that interesting, and which entail stilted conversation with members of the public who cannot behave naturally in the royal presence. How does the Queen stand it? Here we come to another aspect of her role which would be impossible to incorporate in the courses offered at the world’s leading business schools, for the necessary training was carried out in her earliest years.

Her childhood was that of an upper-class girl who learned good manners, Christian piety, how to dance and speak French, the enjoyment of games such as hide and seek, and the love of animals. Horses and dogs remain dear to her. They possess the virtue of being unable to talk, so incapable of betraying confidences, and have provided indispensable relief from the strains of being head of state. Like most members of the upper classes, her family considered intellectual life superfluous, if not harmful. What mattered was how you behaved.

At the start of 1936, when Princess Elizabeth was nine, her grandfather, George V, died, and was succeeded by her father’s older brother, who became Edward VIII. But he refused to behave as a conscientious constitutional monarch should, and defied the advice of his ministers by insisting on marrying a divorced woman, Wallis Simpson. Some people were appalled that Mrs Simpson had two former husbands still living, while others were more horrified she was an American. By the end of 1936, the British and imperial Establishment had obliged Edward VIII to abdicate, and had replaced him with his altogether more dutiful brother, who with great reluctance became George VI.

Princess Elizabeth was now the heir to the throne, and her father began to prepare her for the role she would all too soon find herself playing. She was an apt pupil, with the temperament needed to take her constitutional duties with the utmost seriousness, to follow her ministers’ advice and to remain silent about her own political opinions.

Her coronation, held in 1953, was the first great spectacle of the television age, a royal fairytale produced for popular edification and delight. The presence of the cameras enforced high standards: because the ceremony was going to be seen by many millions of people, it was rehearsed in minute detail. Gone was the slovenly confusion of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. A democracy demanded better than that, and had in fact been getting higher standards since the early years of the 20th century, when under Victoria’s son, Edward VII, glittering royal spectacles were produced for the benefit of an enormous public, which with patriotic fervour saw in its daily newspapers the gratifying evidence of national greatness.

By 1953, Britons were worried we might have entered a period of national decline, and were proud we at least possessed a beautiful young Queen. But it was too much to expect that every member of her family would be able to behave with her grace and decorum. That is not in human nature, and her reign has been punctuated by crises which show the royal family is just as prone as the rest of us to marital disasters, of which the worst, after another fairytale wedding, was the break-up of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s marriage, followed by her death in 1997 in Paris.

The Queen has withstood these sorrows, just as she now withstands the departure for Canada, and then perhaps for California, of Harry, Meghan and their son Archie. Their wedding in 2018 made one proud to be British, their departure for the New World is a shock, but the show goes on, and there is certainly no desire to replace our beloved Queen with some clapped-out politician.


Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Kings & Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs since 1066.


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