Downsize, Your Majesty

David Cannadine

  • The Royals by Kitty Kelley
    Warner, 547 pp, $27.00, September 1997, ISBN 0 446 51712 7

‘A family on the throne,’ observed Walter Bagehot, in one of those honeyed phrases which may mean more or less than they seem to, ‘is an interesting idea.’ Indeed, it is. But during the past two hundred years of British royal history, it is an idea which has embodied itself in two very different human forms. The first version, which has generally been preponderant, has been the ‘happy family on the throne’. Think of George III and Charlotte, with their large, playful, gurgling brood, immortalised in Zoffany’s delightful conversation pieces. Think of Victoria and Albert, happily ensconced at Osborne, all Gemütlichkeit and Christmas trees, with Landseer and Winterhalter conveniently to hand to paint them. Think of George V and Queen Mary, an inseparable couple, who did so much to uphold decent family values in the rackety era of the Bright Young Things. Think of George VI, Elizabeth and the two young princesses, ‘we four’, as the King observed with characteristic precision, ‘the royal family.’ And think of Elizabeth and Philip, whose domestic felicity was proclaimed to the world in the BBC documentary which was inevitably entitled Royal Family.

At first glance, it might seem paradoxical for Britain’s kings and queens, inheritors of one of the world’s most stable and magnificent thrones, to project an image of monarchy which has often been deliberately bourgeois and literally non-majestic. But it has clearly resonated successfully down the generations, and part of the reason for this success is that it has resonated at a variety of different levels. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, when homely, suburban middle-class values were increasingly thought to be in the ascendant, it seemed altogether appropriate that the monarch should both reflect and embody them. At the same time, the Crown was losing its traditional, public, masculine functions of warrior-king and law-giver, and one of the ways in which it resourcefully reinvented itself was by projecting an image of exemplary domesticity which matched and mirrored its evolving Constitutional impartiality. All this made it easy to elide the royal family into the national family: George III was regarded as the ‘father of his people’; on Victoria’s death it was noted that ‘mother’s come home’; and George V was known as ‘Grandpapa England’. And from there it was but a step to seeing the whole of the British Empire as a great global family, with the monarch at its head – a monarch who, from the Thirties, made this sense of family and of headship real by speaking to his subjects every Christmas on the wireless.

But as Bagehot was perhaps hinting, interesting ideas do not need to be right or true, and the idea that the British monarchy has been for the best part of two centuries a long-running Balmorality play is at best inadequate, at worst misleading. Far from inhabiting some idealised form of middle-class suburbia, royal life is carried on in vast palaces, with scores of servants, which makes any sort of comfortable intimacy or confidential closeness virtually impossible, while allowing the quirks, oddities and indulgences of individual character to flourish and luxuriate like hot-house plants. Most monarchs and their consorts have been badly educated, are not used to thinking or talking about their feelings, tend to bottle them up and bury them deep, and occasionally give way to explosions of towering rage, in which hair brushes and crockery are thrown. Not surprisingly, royal relationships across the generations have often been strained and distant, rather than close and affectionate. When Victoria and Albert married off their children, it was with dynastic considerations in mind rather than emotional fulfilment or personal happiness. Most eldest sons, forever waiting to become king, have not been on the best of terms with the sovereign to whose death they looked forward with a debilitating combination of anxiety and anticipation. And younger sons (and daughters, too) have often found their lives empty of purpose: cut off by their royal status, but unable to find anything rewarding with which to fill the time.

Hence the second, alternative model of recent British royalty: not the happy, but the ‘dysfunctional family on the throne’. This, too, is an interesting idea. Think, in this regard, of the sons of George III, and especially the Prince Regent who became George IV: they drank, gambled, ran up debts, fathered bastards, and as a result became the least esteemed royal generation in recent history. Think of the Prince of Wales who eventually became Edward VII: he, too, enjoyed the gaming tables, was a serial and incorrigible adulterer, and found his friends among the fast set, whose morals were as loose as his own. Think of the Prince of Wales who briefly became Edward VIII: he specialised in affairs with married women, drank American cocktails and ate club sandwiches, and threw away his throne to marry a twice-divorced American adventuress, by whom he sired no progeny at all. And think of the children of Elizabeth and Philip: three of them have been divorced, and the fourth is reputedly living in sin – though the exact nature of the sin being committed is still much debated. Although Balmorality has generally prevailed, or at least has been thought to have prevailed, among British royalty during the last two hundred years, it has been interspersed with very different modes of morality at Brighton Pavilion, Sandringham, Fort Belvedere and Highgrove.

Thus understood, the behaviour of British royalty has swung back and forth across the generations, and it is only by chance that the happy family model has usually predominated over the dysfunctional. Consider these alternative possibilities, any one of which might easily have come to pass. If George III had died younger or gone mad sooner, his sons would have had much greater opportunities to enjoy and consolidate their debauched and self-indulgent idea of monarchy. If Victoria rather than Albert had died in 1861, Edward VII might have reigned and rogered for fifty years, which would surely have tried the patience even of the long suffering Queen Alexandra. If Edward VIII had not abdicated, but had instead renounced Mrs Simpson, he would probably have moved on to the next married woman who took his fancy, then the next one after that. And if the present queen had decided to call it a day at 70, then King Charles III and his mistress would by now already be installed in Buckingham Palace. It is impossible to know whether the British monarchy would have survived developments such as these. But it probably would have done: few sovereigns in modern history have lost their crown because they have been unfaithful to their wives – or to their husbands. All of which is simply to say that a family on the throne is an even more interesting idea than Bagehot may have recognised, and that the relationship between monarchy and morality in Britain is much more complex and contingent than is often allowed.

Such complexities and contingencies are completely lost on Kitty Kelley, whose concern is merely to expose the royal family’s ‘secrets of alcoholism, drug addiction, epilepsy, insanity, homosexuality, bisexuality, adultery, infidelity and illegitimacy’ over the years since George V changed the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha into the House of Windsor in 1917. Her method, already perfected in her unauthorised and unflattering biographies of Frank Sinatra and Nancy Reagan, is to write bestsellers that take what she describes as ‘an unblinking look’ at their subjects – which might, of course, mean that her eyes are permanently open or permanently closed. To this end, she has spent four years interviewing eight hundred people, ranging from footmen to courtiers, she has ransacked files of press cuttings on both sides of the Atlantic, and she has read most of the books published on the royal family, some of which are scholarly and reliable, many of which are not. The result is a book so bad that Britons cannot realise how fortunate they are in being unable to buy it: wholly lacking in historical perspective or context, saying little that is new or interesting, devoid of any coherent argument or overall interpretation, tediously prurient in its obsession with human weakness, and written in prose that makes tabloid journalism seem almost fastidious. The great mistake with this book is not that it has not been published in Britain, but that it has actually been published anywhere.

For all her claim to begin her story in 1917, Kelley has virtually nothing to say until she reaches the wedding of the present queen thirty years later. The reign of George V is passed over in a few pages, and she seems unexpectedly uninterested in the strained relations between the monarch and his sons, about which the last word has certainly not yet been said. The Abdication scarcely quickens her enthusiasm, and the Second World War gets similarly truncated treatment. Thereafter she slows, to take us through the standard episodes: the births of Charles and Anne; the death of King George VI; the Coronation and the Townsend affair; the marriages and divorces of Princess Margaret, Princess Anne, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York; the fire at Windsor Castle, the annus horribilis speech; and so on. In telling this story she parades a cast of cardboard characters: the Queen Mother with her gin bottle and her gambling; Princess Margaret, the house guest from hell; the Queen, who is better with horses and corgis than with people; Prince Philip, a boorish bloke, with a preference for quarterdeck language; Prince Charles, by turns opinionated and indecisive, defender of faith yet a faithless husband; the Duchess of York, part national laughing stock, part global embarrassment; and the Princess of Wales, spending a fortune on clothes and colonic irrigation. And she gives cameo parts to the royal entourage and its hangers-on: Lord Snowdon, Raine Spencer, Major Ronald Ferguson, Koo Stark, James Hewitt, Madam Vasso and the rest.

Thus described by Kelley, the House of Windsor is part Evelyn Waugh, part Tom Sharpe, wholly Spitting Image. It is not so much that she descends to personalities as that she is incapable of rising above them. But this is scarcely to say anything new: ‘too little, too late’ has been the general verdict here in America. Few people today believe that members of the royal family are paragons of virtue, setting the highest standards of behaviour. On the contrary, many now relish the fact that the royal family, which was not so long ago thought to be so virtuous, turns out to be nothing of the kind. But so what? Most monarchs, like most mortals, have scarcely been individuals of unimpeachable character – King John? Henry VIII? James II? Compared with many previous sovereigns, the failings of the Windsors which Kelley describes with such evident relish seem relatively harmless, and exactly what one might expect of any isolated, privileged, undereducated, self-indulgent royal clan. Nor, despite sanctimonious and hypocritical claims to the contrary, do such revelations make any contribution to the serious debate on the British monarchy which has yet to take place. There are important arguments to be made about the relative merits of a hereditary or an elected head of state, but not at the level of the human frailties of particular monarchs or presidents. No one seriously contends that the American Presidency should be abolished because Bill Clinton (perhaps Kelley’s next victim?) is a self-confessed adulterer. So why should the abolition of the British monarchy be contemplated because the same is true of Prince Charles?

In any case, given the recent public mood, and notwithstanding the accumulated royal scandals of the past fifteen years, there is no serious demand in Britain for the monarchy to be abolished. Whenever the latest royal misdemeanour is reported, journalists yet again inform us that the ‘end of the house of Windsor’ is imminent. But they never advance from this apocalyptic hyperbole to address the question implicit in such predictions: how in practice would the House of Windsor be ended? One means would be Parliamentary legislation abolishing the monarchy: this is not a realistic possibility. Another is that the crowds rise up, storm Buckingham Palace, and bear its occupants off to the guillotine: even in the unhappy and feverish week between Princess Diana’s death and funeral, this was not in prospect. Yet a third is that the royals throw in their collective hand, and that the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William decide they have had enough: this seems unlikely. The fourth option which, until recent events, did seem to be gaining ground, was the holding of a referendum when the present queen dies: but since everyone now wants Wills to succeed as posthumous vindication of his beatified mother, this, too, is now beyond the realm of practicable or foreseeable politics.

Scandal undermines monarchies, but rarely ends them. It may be true that, according to a recent editorial in the New York Times, the British monarchy now exists primarily ‘for our amusement’. But as long as people find it amusing, and want to be amused by it, they will be happy to see it undermined, but uneager to kill it off. What, then, if anything, is the broader significance of these recent royal revelations, of which Kelley’s book may best be regarded as an uninspired anthology? It seems clear that the last fifteen years have witnessed a significant swing of the moral pendulum, away from the happy family which the British monarchy was believed to be until the Seventies, and towards the dysfunctional model which now prevails. There are many familiar explanations for this development: the increasingly intrusive and undeferential media; the pioneering misdoings, mismatches and misdemeanours of Princess Margaret; the foolish, indiscreet, self-indulgent and irresponsible behaviour of the younger generation of royals; and the broader changes in contemporary attitudes in the West to sex, marriage, divorce and single-parenting. It is not yet possible to say whether this amounts to a temporary rejection of Balmorality, as has been the usual pattern in the past, or something more long-lasting. But since the royal pendulum always moves sooner or later, we should not be surprised at this change, nor should we expect it to be permanent.

There is, however, another way of looking at these scandals, which suggests they are part of more deeply rooted and fundamental changes, both in and to the monarchy and the nation, of which the House of Windsor itself (to say nothing of Kitty Kelley) seems only dimly aware. But in order to get a sense of what they are, we need to see the whole of the present queen’s reign in a much longer historical perspective. The royal regime which prevailed during the Fifties and Sixties, and which in many ways survives to this day, was still that which had evolved during the later part of the reign of Queen Victoria: it was rich, grand, popular, imperial, ceremonially splendid – and also a happy family. The creation of this new-old style of royalty was popularly (and excessively) attributed to Benjamin Disraeli; it was, quite appropriately, a great-power monarchy for the great-power nation Britain undeniably was at the time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897; and with the abolition of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian thrones during and after the First World War, it became the only surviving great-power monarchy. It went on to survive Edward VIII and the Second World War, and Elizabeth II inherited it, virtually unaltered, in 1952.

Since then, a great deal has changed; Britain is no longer the great power, or the great empire, it was one hundred or even fifty years ago. But in other ways, very little (too little) has changed; for Britain still has a great-power monarchy, with imperial pretensions, both in terms of the way the thing works, and the attitudes of the people who work it. Inevitably, this means that the dominant theme of the Queen’s reign has been the growing credibility gap between the Late-Victorian monarchy Britain still has, and the post-Victorian nation Britain has been becoming. The recent controversies over the fire at Windsor Castle, the Queen’s forced and belated decision to pay income tax, and the replacement of the royal yacht, may best be understood as aspects and indicators of this problem, though they are all too rarely discussed as such. And the same holds for the scandals and delinquencies of the younger generation of royals. For in bringing to an end the happy family monarchy, they have done more than merely move the behavioural pendulum; they have also knocked away one of the principal props to the old imperial monarchy. From this perspective, such a change not only looks more irreversible than cyclical, it also draws attention to the many other ways in which the old imperial monarchy has not changed, or has not yet changed enough.

To say this is not to argue that the future existence of the House of Windsor is in jeopardy. But what it is to say is that if the monarchy is to be repositioned and reinvented at the centre of the life of the nation, then the widening gap between the great-power nation Britain no longer is, and the great-power monarchy Britain still has, urgently needs to be closed. And since Britain under Tony Blair finally seems to be settling down to the realities and opportunities of being a middle-ranking European power, emancipated from the Thatcherite thraldom of post-imperial nostalgia and regret, then the only way to close this crown-and-people gap is to tackle the problem from the side of the monarchy, not the nation. In prospect, the present queen’s accession seemed to hold out the hope of a new Elizabethan age of global greatness. This was a euphoric but deluded aspiration. In retrospect, the more challenging task of her reign was the progressive de-Victorianisation of the monarchy to keep it in step and in touch with the progressive de-Victorianisation of the nation. But as the public reaction to the death and funeral of the Princess of Wales abundantly demonstrated, the second of these processes is by now well advanced, while the first has scarcely yet been adequately recognised, let alone begun.

If this is right, then the Queen urgently needs to find a downsizing Disraeli who can de-imperialise the British monarchy. Self-evidently, this is not a job for which Kitty Kelley should apply. Rumour has it that the Queen, the Prince of Wales, their relatives and their advisers are now giving this matter anxious (if belated) attention. But how can they address this problem, when in so many ways they are the problem? And one of the ways in which they are the problem is that there are still too many royals around. In the days when Britain was a great power and a great empire, this did not seem incongruous or inappropriate. But if there is to be a downsized monarchy to match a downsized Britain, there must be a downsized royal family, restricted to a central stem consisting of the Queen Mother, the Queen, Prince Philip, the Prince of Wales and his two sons. As for the rest, it is not enough to have removed them from the Civil List, the title of royal highness should be abolished, they should no longer be bowed or curtseyed to, their names should be removed from the court circular, and they should be encouraged to seek alternative accommodation and employment in private life. ‘A family on the throne’ is indeed ‘an interesting idea’: but in late 20th-century, post-imperial Britain, it is an idea whose time ought finally to have passed.