Dawn of a new golden age...
It’s been a bumpy ride over the last century, but the House of Windsor is now setting the benchmark for royals in the 21st century, says the author of The King’s Speech
It can’t be easy being a Spanish monarchist these days. First there was a messy corruption scandal involving the King’s sonin- law, Iñaki Urdangarin. Then an embarrassing royal elephant hunt in Botswana that only came to light after King Juan Carlos broke his hip and had to be flown back home in a hurry for treatment. And, to cap it all, his 13-year-old grandson shot himself in the foot. Literally.
The Borbons are not alone in Europe’s royals in having to put up with a few negative headlines these days: the Swedish king, Carl XVI Gustaf, is having to keep a low profile after some rather juicy allegations about his own private life, while the Dutch monarchy is grieving following a skiing accident that has left Queen Beatrix’s second son Friso in a coma, from which it is feared he will never recover. And the less said about Prince Albert of Monaco’s on-off marriage with Charlene Wittstock, the former Olympic swimmer, the better.
By contrast, our own House of Windsor appears to be going through something of a golden age at the moment. The Queen, although now 86, continues to do a splendid job, while the Duke of Edinburgh remains a loyal consort. Not all of us are entirely convinced by Prince Charles, but William is coming along nicely and the Royal Family has acquired a brilliant addition in the form of the Duchess of Cambridge. There will be plenty to celebrate come the Jubilee.
But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become too smug. Let’s not forget the 1990s, with the Queen’s annus horribilis and the very public – and very messy – break-up of Prince Charles’s marriage with Diana. Most of those problems that afflicted the House of Windsor during that decade seemed to come straight out of the blue – just as our next Royal crisis will do.
The truth is, as I found when researching my book, The Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made It Into The Twenty-First Century, the standing of the monarchy – not just in Britain but anywhere in the world – is never constant. Instead, like all public institutions, it can go through periods when everything seems to be going right and others when anything that could go wrong, does. And sometimes it goes so badly wrong that it can be swept away completely.
In the past century, at least, the main enemy of monarchy has been war – or rather military defeat. The First World War swept away three of Europe’s most powerful monarchies – the Romanovs, the Habsburgs and Germany’s Hohenzollerns. The Second World War did away with Italy’s House of Savoy and a clutch of Eastern Europeans, and would have done for the Belgians, too, had Leopold III, seen as having been a little too close to the Nazi occupiers, not grasped which way the wind was blowing and abdicated in favour of his son, Baudouin.
The Windsors, of course, had a good war, from which George VI, the reluctant monarch, emerged hugely popular, even if the strain weighed heavily on his health. By choosing to remain in Buckingham Palace (the palace gate, shown below) – by day, at least – and face the German bombs, he and Queen Elizabeth showed their willingness to share the suffering of their people.
But they have also had a good peace, too. While popular attitudes to monarchy have undoubtedly changed in the decades since the end of the war, the institution is arguably as strong now, as the Queen marks her 60 years on the throne, as it was in 1945.
It has not been an entirely smooth ride, however. While the accession of the young monarch was marked by enthusiasm for a ‘new Elizabethan age’, the mid-1950s saw an unprecedented attack on her style, with the venerable Malcolm Muggeridge effectively forced off the BBC after comparing the Royal Family to a soap opera.
The birth of the satire bomb of the 1960s saw the Royal Family subject to mockery – for the first time since the 18th century – while Willie Hamilton, one of the few militant republicans in parliament, branded the Queen ‘a clockwork doll’, Prince Charles ‘a twerp’, Princess Anne as ‘plain’ and Princess Margaret ‘a floozy’.
That was kind compared to some of the words used to describe the Queen’s younger sister Princess Margaret, whose antics in the run-up to her divorce from Lord Snowdon (announced in 1976) including her very public affair with the young Roddy Lllewellyn – saw her pilloried by the papers.
None of that was anything like the damage sustained during the 1990s. A devastating fire at Windsor Castle in 1992 and a row over who was going to pay the bill, followed by the very public implosion, not just of Charles’s but also of Anne’s and Andrew’s marriages, all took their toll.
Then, most tragic of all, came the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 and the controversial reaction of the Royal Family. What they’d seen as dignity and a chance to grieve privately, was portrayed by the tabloids as callousness. Polls suggest that enthusiasm for the monarchy – and for the Royal Family – has fluctuated accordingly. Yet it has done so within only narrow range. Indeed, Ipsos Mori has found support for the monarchy running at a remarkably constant 69 to 72 per cent between 1993 and 2006 (dipping only briefly to 65 per cent in April 2005) – the kind of poll numbers beyond the dreams of David Cameron. Republicanism, meanwhile, remains a minority interest, with support of 15 to 22 per cent in the same period.
No one setting out to create a country from scratch now would make it a monarchy. Yet for Britain, as for the few other European countries with kings and queens, monarchy seems to work. It looks likely to continue to do so: as the old adage goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Happy Jubilee.
Peter Conradi is a writer with The Sunday Times.
The Great Survivors: How Monarchy Made It Into The Twenty-First Century by Peter Conradi (Alma Books, £20).
Daily tip from the lady archive
"DEEPLY-ROOTED is the idea that men are indifferent to dress, while the ladies, God bless them, think of nothing else"The Lady, With Prejudice, 8th January, 1942