The Ruling Exception

David Cannadine

  • Queen Victoria: Gender and Power by Dorothy Thompson
    Virago, 167 pp, £6.99, May 1990, ISBN 0 86068 773 2

Ever since Disraeli made Queen Victoria Empress of India in 1876, the Conservative Party has been one of the lion-supporters of the British Crown, and to this day, the monstrous regiment of Tory women, and the blimpish cohorts of retired colonels, are among the most loyal and devoted of Her Majesty’s subjects. But for all that, the true-blue-rinse Thatcher years have not been a happy or an easy time for the House of Windsor. In public, the Prime Minister professes respect and admiration for her sovereign lady and the whole royal family. But it is difficult to believe that in private she offers the same unstinted ‘devotion’ that Disraeli lavished so fulsomely (and so calculatingly) on his ‘faery queen’. As the visible embodiment of stultifying tradition, obscurantist snobbery, unearned riches, hereditary privilege, vested interests, paternalistic decency and patrician wetness, the crown and its court exemplify many of the attitudes which Mrs Thatcher most vehemently detests. And as the successful leader of the nation in arms (remember the Falklands?), and the most long-serving occupant of 10 Downing Street this century, the Prime Minister has in many quarters displaced the monarchy as the most potent symbol of national identity. ‘No wonder,’ she has reputedly remarked of the Windsors, ‘they stand on ceremony: what else have they got?’

Nor has the younger generation of royals exactly endeared itself to the national headmistress. Prince Edward has never recovered from the fiasco of It’s a Knockout, Fergie’s foray into fiction was equally ill-advised, and if Marina Ogilvy had not existed, the tabloids would probably have invented her (which to some extent they undoubtedly did). Even the Prince of Wales seems more than a little accident-prone. Like his predecessors, he is effectively without a job until the throne becomes vacant – which may not be until well into the next century. Meanwhile there is no longer an empire to provide him with the appropriate apprenticeship of a proconsular posting, and he is understandably eager to do more than accompany his wife on her shopping trips. But while his comments on modern architecture and urban planning may be sincerely meant, it is right royal naiveté to suppose that Britain’s social and environmental problems can best be solved by turning the whole country into a Canaletto-like theme park. And his concern for the disadvantaged has not exactly endeared him to the Conservative Central Office. As Norman Tebbit replied, in words reminiscent of Walter Bagehot, it is not surprising that the Prince is so sympathetic towards the unemployed: he is by way of being one of them himself.

All this is indicative of a deeper change in perceptions of royalty that has taken place during the last decade or so. The puppets of Spitting Image, and the trivialities of the tabloids, make it increasingly difficult to maintain the illusion of reverential seriousness essential to the survival of royal mystique. Such rigid organs of weekend Toryism as the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph regularly carry articles which zealously criticise an institution once thought by them to be beyond censure and above reproach. And a clutch of recent biographies has toppled several notable royal icons from their pedestals. Kenneth Rose depicted George V as an ogre so boorish and philistine that in retrospect he appears almost pathetically comical. In his books on Edward VIII, Michael Bloch has washed a great deal of the Abdication dirty linen in public, and much of the mud has stuck to the Duke of Windsor himself, to say nothing of the Duchess. Sarah Bradford’s biography of George VI portrayed him as the ultimate sacrificial sovereign, overwhelmed and destroyed by events he could neither control nor comprehend. And Philip Ziegler’s official life of Lord Mountbatten suggested that the royal family’s ‘beloved Uncle Dickie’ was an interfering manipulator of unscrupulous methods, and a shameless adventurer of colossal and inordinate vanity.

With so much daylight now being let in, it is hardly surprising that the old royal magic is not quite what it once was. By its very nature, monarchy can be either revered or discussed: but it can rarely be both at the same time. And in Thatcher’s Britain, the trend has been emphatically away from reverence and towards discussion. But in this increasingly critical reappraisal, professional historians have thus far played very little part. Most recent royal lives have still been penned by genteel amateurs, and there is no book on the modern British monarchy comparable in scholarly stature to Denis Mack Smith on the Kings of Italy. Dorothy Thompson’s study of Queen Victoria is thus the more to be welcomed, for she is a writer in a very different tradition from such conventional courtly biographers as Elizabeth Longford, Cecil Woodham-Smith and Georgina Battiscombe. She lectures in history at Birmingham University, she specialises in the study of early 19th-century popular protest, and her published work on the Chartist movement has been ‘written in general sympathy with it’. As a socialist, she sides with ‘ordinary people’ against the ‘constant erosion of the democratic process’, and ‘the authoritarianism of the rich and powerful’. And as a feminist, she believes that ‘the opinions and feelings of women, as workers, as thinkers, as carers and nurturers of the young and old, must be heard.’

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