|About this Recording
NA324712 - Elizabeth II: Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth II (The) (PHILLIPS)
The Life and Times of
QUEEN ELIZABETH II
It was in South Africa in 1947 that Princess Elizabeth, as she then
was, used her twenty-first birthday radio broadcast to make a solemn dedication of her life to her people. It is remembered as a strangely moving moment; no broadcast she was ever to make in the future was charged with quite so much emotion. What millions of people round the world heard was a sacred pledge from the romantic figure of a young princess (who was shortly to become engaged to marry the man she loved) offering up her life “whether it be long or short”.
Her life and reign has turned out to be long, rather than short. As the Queen prepares to celebrate her Golden Jubilee, that broadcast now seems part of distant history. Its phraseology belongs to another world. What she actually pledged herself to serve was “our great Imperial family, to which we all belong”. Like many another family, it has experienced its share of ructions and upheavals in the years since then. It has been succeeded by the Commonwealth, most of whose members are now totally independent of Britain and many of which are republics, whose people do not recognize the Queen as their sovereign – although she remains ‘Head of the Commonwealth.’
But that is far from being the only change in the status of the monarchy that the Queen has witnessed during her lifetime. When she was born her grandfather, George V, was on the throne. In his day the monarchy was an almost mystical institution. The people revered their King and Queen as distant, ceremonial figures. Little about their private life was known. Newspaper editors believed that their readers would disapprove of being offered royal tittle-tattle. The abdication of Edward VIII shattered that picture, but the dogged, courageous reign of George VI and Queen Elizabeth, now the Queen Mother, pieced it together again. They and their children represented in the public mind a carefully stage-managed image of the ideal, dutiful family, setting an example, showing us all the better side of ourselves. The public was not given close-up details, such as the King’s sudden outbreaks of temper or the Queen’s habit of expressing frank political opinions, that might have made the royal family seem less like symbols and more like human beings.
Today the members of the extended family centered on Buckingham Palace are no longer seen as an ideal family whose job it is to provide the nation with a moral example. They are a flesh and blood family, like many others, whose lives are seen in close-up. At first the Queen distrusted the effects of television. She was in favour of keeping the cameras out of Westminster Abbey at the time of her Coronation. But popular demand forced the government to recommend that they should be allowed in, so that the ceremony could be shared by millions of watchers throughout the kingdom and the world. From then on the monarchy became a media event. The royal family tried to control this new phenomenon by making a carefully-produced television film of their own, with glimpses behind the royal curtain. It only served to whet the public appetite for more. From then on the private lives of royalty became circulation-winning material, a process that led to the tragedy of Princess Diana.
From all this the Queen herself has survived remarkably unscathed. Her personal popularity rating remains much as it always was. She learned early on that all monarchies must adapt to survive. Her household has certainly adapted – there is now even a Buckingham Palace website and an official on-line royal magazine, giving answers to frequently asked questions. The royal finances can be inspected and so can the royal diary. But the Queen herself, although battered by a succession of family setbacks, conducts herself in much the same way as she always did.
The style of the monarchy, although modernised in detail, essentially has not changed. The Queen performs the same kind of official duties in much the same way as she did when she first came to the throne. Although she no longer has a royal yacht of her own, it can be pointed out that this is less a downgrading of status than an acceptance of the fact that ocean-going voyages are no longer the way busy people choose to travel.
Her constitutional role remains virtually unchanged, except for one small but important detail. The appointment of a prime minister (she is now on her tenth) was formerly a matter of the royal prerogative. The palace took soundings and sent for someone who was likely to be able to form a government and command the allegiance of the House of Commons. The last time that happened was when the Queen sent for Lord Home, to the fury and astonishment of more democratic Conservatives, who suspected an old-Etonian plot. Now that all parties elect their leaders by democratic voting procedure, the Queen has lost this last bit of power, much, one imagines, to her relief.
The Golden Jubilee is a time to look back on the Queen’s particular contribution to the enduring institution of monarchy. But it will also, inevitably, open a debate as to what kind of monarchy is to follow.
Notes by Pearson Phillips
Pearson Phillips is a freelance writer and journalist, who is approaching his own golden jubilee as a feature writer for Fleet Street newspapers and magazines, including The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Observer. He has contributed studies of Prince Philip, Prince Charles and Princess Alexandra of Kent. A book about Princess Anne was published at the time of her first marriage and serialised in a Sunday newspaper. His worst royal experience was to find himself lost and alone, roaming seemingly endless corridors in Buckingham Palace, trying to find the way out.
Close the window