Bertie pulls it off

John Campbell

  • King George VI by Sarah Bradford
    Weidenfeld, 506 pp, £18.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 297 79667 4

The British monarchy was tested almost to destruction in 1936-37. The crisis had three phases, of which the actual abdication of King Edward VIII was only the most visible. The monarchy had already been placed under acute strain by Edward’s unkingly conduct in the few months since his father’s death – his feckless hedonism, his dangerous political naivety and his neglect of the more tedious duties of his role. His abdication – an entirely characteristic act of childish stubbornness – was an unprecedented shock to a system founded upon precedent: yet to most of those who had seen his inadequacy at close quarters it was a relief – or would have been if there had not been serious doubt whether his brother the Duke of York was up to the job either. His health was poor, he suffered from a severe stammer and he lacked even Edward’s vapid charm. For some months – while the American press speculated that the new king was ‘of poorer royal timber than has occupied England’s throne in many decades’ – courtiers and royal-watchers held their breath to see if ‘Bertie’ would make out. In fact, the responsibility thrust upon him brought out unsuspected qualities in George VI, and the institution emerged from the trial stronger in public affection than ever before.

The crisis exemplifies the risks inherent in a hereditary system: the institution is at the mercy of the calibre of the individuals whom the accident of primogeniture throws up to embody it. The remarkable thing, given the pressures and expectations, the hothouse upbringing, the flattery and the temptations to which they are subjected, is that the royal family has not produced more inadequate personalities in the direct line of succession. George V’s two elder sons were, fortunately for the family firm, fundamentally different characters. The wonder, however, is not that ‘David’ should have turned out badly but that ‘Bertie’ should have turned out so well. (There were two more brothers, ‘Harry’ of Gloucester and George of Kent, whose capacity for kingship, had the succession moved further down the line, was for different reasons equally doubtful.)

Despite the horrors and humiliations of his upbringing as the second son of a father perversely determined that his children should undergo the same torments at the hands of the same dim-witted tutors that he had suffered as a boy, Prince Albert inherited a quite exceptional sense of family duty. Physically weedy – he had to wear splints for knock knees – and disabled by his stammer, he was bullied as a Naval cadet and came bottom of his class at Osborne. He lived always in the shadow of his glamorous and favoured elder brother. Yet as he grew up he accepted his humbler role in the royal pageant and discharged it diligently and loyally. Despite ill-health he was determined to serve in the Navy during the Great War and managed to take part in the battle of Jutland. Later he joined the infant RAF and forced himself to learn to fly, although he hated it. After the war he spent most of the next 16 years innocently running boys’ camps and doing industrial charity work. Though not the heir to the throne, with none of his brother’s photogenic flair for public exposure and with much more excuse to opt out, he never shirked anything that was demanded of him: so that, though he dreaded the idea of becoming king, he knew what he had to do when the job was dumped on him and rose to the unwelcome challenge with genuine heroism.

The best thing he ever did was to marry Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. She is usually said to have been the making of him, and so perhaps she was. The famous words which his brother used in his Abdication broadcast – that he found it ‘impossible to carry the heavy burdens of responsibility ... without the help and support of the woman I love’ – applied, in reality, at least as much to George VI as to Edward. As Duchess of York and later as Queen, Elizabeth lent ‘Bertie’ strength and boosted his self-confidence (whereas Wallis only made Edward more feebly dependent on herself). Yet he showed considerable strength and will-power of his own in determining to marry Elizabeth in the first place, overcoming the discouragement of two refusals to win her in the end. It could be said that their stubborn insistence on marrying the wives of their choice was the thing the brothers had most in common; the difference was in the judgment and the sense of responsibility with which they made their choice. Prince Albert’s choice showed that he had what it took as surely as Edward’s showed that he had not.

Lasting only from December 1936 to February 1952, George VI’s was a short reign, barely fifteen years, but it was an exceptionally difficult one, for three reasons. First, the sensational circumstances of his succession continued to dog him. Privately, the exiled Duke of Windsor’s uncomprehending bitterness at his family’s refusal to grant his wife the title ‘Her Royal Highness’ – which she coveted for its ‘extra chic’ – prevented any reconciliation for as long as he lived. Publicly, and more seriously, the fact that his brother was still alive and could still be seen – not only in starstruck America but more dangerously by the Nazis – as a rival claimant to the throne was deeply and uniquely unsettling. Briefly in 1936 there had glimmered the mischievous possibility of a ‘King’s party’, led by Churchill and Beaverbrook, ready to back Edward against Baldwin: four years later this was one reason why George was initially most unhappy to accept Churchill as prime minister, and still more why he tried to stop Churchill bringing in Beaverbrook. He did not yet feel quite secure.

Secondly, Hitler’s war put George’s symbolic embodiment of the nation to the test far more directly than the protracted but distant slaughter of 1914-18 ever did his father. For a few months in 1940, the very survival of the nation was in question, and for another year after that the war continued to go very badly. The King of Norway and the Queen of the Netherlands took refuge in England, while King Leopold of Belgium surrendered to the Germans. Elizabeth solemnly took revolver lessons, vowing: ‘I shall not go down like the others.’ Churchill voiced the British lion’s roar: but King George had to broadcast too, an agonising ordeal which after much rehearsal he surmounted. In the Blitz he came into his own, refusing to leave London and identifying himself firmly with the national mood by touring bomb sites and talking sympathetically with bombed-out families: Elizabeth won a popularity at this time which has never faded. When Buckingham Palace was bombed, she was quick to see the public relations value, remarking that now she could ‘look the East End in the face’. George was privately furious, suspecting a personal attack by a royal relation serving in the Italian Air Force! But he showed a sure touch by overriding the War Office’s stuffy refusal to give gallantry awards to bomb-disposal officers by instituting his own medal, the George Cross, specifically for civilian heroism. By his simple steadiness during the war, doing his duty uncomplainingly in difficult times, he perfectly complemented Churchill’s more stirring sense of destiny and bound himself more closely to his people than any of his ancestors.

This human bond helped him to surmount the third potential threat to his throne, the unexpected election in 1945 of a Labour government, heralding a new era of socialism, austerity and – of particular regret to George – the loss of his Indian empire. In fact, the war had already habituated him to short commons and fair shares – ‘they were very ration-minded,’ a lady-in-waiting recalled without enthusiasm – and found not too much difficulty in permanently cutting down on royal flummery to fit the style of a more egalitarian age. He remained a stickler for constitutional forms and the proper degree of outward show that was the essence of monarchy: but – by contrast with his unlamented brother whose conspicuous extravagance would have been a standing affront to Labour – he had no interest in private luxury. Upper-class socialists like Hugh Dalton and Lord Longford occasionally alarmed him by raising the spectre of republicanism, but he found Attlee – once he had got used to him – greatly reassuring. In truth, no such nonsense ever stood a chance. King George and Queen Elizabeth were – deservedly – too popular.

Sarah Bradford has written an excellent book about this admirable but personally very dull man. Her research has been immensely thorough and wide-ranging – including some sixty sets of private papers – and her ordering of the myriad nuggets she has quarried into a balanced mosaic is generally exemplary, though it is a disconcerting misjudgment to leave the Duke of Windsor’s shadowy wartime exploits out of the war chapter where they importantly belong and then go back to them two chapters later on, when his relevance is past. She is not altogether at home with politics and some errors and oddities creep in. Bonar Law was not prime minister in July 1922; only by royal standards could Baldwin be regarded as particularly ‘cultivated’; it is a little naive to suggest that the fifth Marquess of Salisbury ‘could hardly be considered a politician’; and surely no one could describe Attlee’s clipped military moustache as ‘drooping’. These are small matters: but then it is a book, despite its broad dynastic themes, largely composed of small matters. No doubt regular readers of royal biographies have an inexhaustible appetite for the detail of palace life, for orders of chivalry and the affairs of the whole network of German, Danish, Greek and Yugoslav princelings: but others may find the accumulation of royal trivia at times a bit much. It is a long book.

She has been criticised for devoting too much space to the Abdication and the Duke of Windsor. On the contrary, her emphasis here is fully justified: his brother’s abdication was the central event which shaped George VI’s life – the only reason we wish to read about him at all – and the poisoned relationship between the brothers remained the most interesting thing in his life. As Sarah Bradford herself writes, ‘the quarrel ... could have provided a theme for Shakespearean tragedy had it not been conducted on such a petty level.’ It is petty, yet it still has historic resonance. There was a real possibility that the monarchy might have been destroyed, which would have had enormous implications for British society. It was not, but the manner of its survival, too, has shaped British life. Miss Bradford’s thorough exposition of the family quarrel is the meat of the book. She is unapologetically on her subject’s side. The weight of evidence of Edward’s impossible behaviour is crushing. Yet it is valuable to have spelled out so clearly from the perspective of the family why they all – his brother, his sister-in-law and not least his mother, Queen Mary – felt so bitterly betrayed by Edward’s conduct. He had let the side down and endangered their very existence.

By his dullness, his ordinariness and his vulnerability, George VI created and secured the modern monarchy. His stammer aroused sympathy: people desperately wanted him to succeed, and were pleased when he did – though at the same time they might have been unforgiving if he had not. It must be very doubtful whether he could have survived the cruel attentions of today’s media wolfpack. He and the Queen with the two princesses established the idea of the royal family, not in Victoria’s extended matriarchal sense, embracing all the crowned heads of Europe, but as a modest nuclear family unit essentially no different from mum and dad and the two kids in every suburban semi in the country. This, in the Forties and Fifties, was a very potent image. Only recently, with over-proliferation and over-exposure, has it threatened to get out of hand. George VI did adapt the monarchy remarkably successfully to the modern world, even though – as Sarah Bradford amply demonstrates – he was still narrowly class-bound and utterly philistine in his private life and personal tastes.

Princess Elizabeth was almost miraculously well-suited to carrying on the tradition, with an equally highly-developed sense of duty. But it might not have been so. The sense of responsibility is not necessarily hereditary. It was fortunate that in this generation the less dedicated sister was the younger. Princess Margaret’s more rackety tastes and marital troubles have been successfully marginalised: but had she been the elder, something very like the events of 1936 might well have been repeated. Now, in Prince Charles, it seems that the direct line has come up with another winner – possessing the same dedication, plus the intelligence and curiosity to adapt the idea of monarchy in an ever more rapidly changing world without losing the sense of a semi-religious vocation. Charles is a much more interesting and deeper personality than his grandfather. But he will build on the principles laid down by George VI. If a king can be judged by the criteria we apply to political leaders, the legacy that George VI passed on to his successors could be said to be more secure and recognisable forty years on than either Churchill’s Tory Party or Attlee’s Labour Party.