Books: Life on an imperial scale

THE QUEEN: A Life of Elizabeth II by Ben Pimlott, HarperCollins pounds 20
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The test of a book is the value it adds to the existing corpus of knowledge, which in the case of the Queen is imperial in scale. Yet Ben Pimlott's treatment succeeds. This is the book we have needed for a long time, and the key to his success is that he treats the Head of State as if he were writing about a Head of Government, as a political figure as much as a ceremonial adornment. Place this book alongside Vernon Boganor's The Monarchy and the Constitution, published last year, and none of her subjects can claim avoidable ignorance on the matter of their monarch - however distracted they are by the feeding frenzy of the tabloid press and the penumbra of prurient hardbacks which surrounds it.

In the absence of the Queen's Windsor archive or her personal diary, Professor Pimlott was obviously going to need some indispensable sources from within that tight little network of advisers to the monarch in the years since 1952. I suspect they took some persuading that this left-of- centre academic and Fabian merited the kind of briefing on which his study was going to depend. They have clearly succumbed to his slightly absent- minded charm (a blend of scholarliness and other-worldliness) and their decision has brought benefit all round. The Queen does not relish 651- page books, but she should read this one and judge its utility as a mirror of her life and times.

But who are "they" whose accessibility to Pimlott has proved so special and so rewarding? On the constitutional and political side the voices of two former private secretaries at the Palace, Lord Charteris and Sir Edward Ford, have powerfully shaped the tone and content. Martin Charteris is instantly identifiable, even when camouflaged in Pimlott's footnotes as "confidential interview". He has long been a historian's delight and, when interviewed, he deliquesces like a ripe stilton in irresistibly gamey language. He has been dotty about the Queen ever since he joined her service when she was still Princess Elizabeth; he wept unashamedly when, as he left her employ, she said "Thanks for a lifetime". Charteris has talked out of love for her. He thinks she is the bee's-knees of a Queen, and everyone should know it.

Sir Edward Ford is a drier source. But he has a passion for accuracy and believes in the record being set and kept straight. Pimlott's Downing Street and Cabinet Office sources are choice, but they cannot match the richness of his old courtiers. In helping Professor Pimlott they have done their former boss a great service.

Thanks to his old boys and his own gifts as a contemporary historian, Pimlott has surpassed the standard life-and-times biographical genre. He sets the Queen beautifully in the context of each shifting period of her reign, so that she can now be fitted where she always should have been - into the fine print of postwar political history. Until recently she, like the input of her secret services, was the missing dimension in the scholarly treatment of high politics, partly because historians and political scientist had so little to go on (writers divert their pens from difficult and meagrely sourced subjects) and partly because, quite wrongly, many observers believed the political role of the monarchy had, for all serious purposes, became almost completely marginalised.

I still sense that the tip of the iceberg of royal influence is all that we have, and will continue to have, until the Queen's official biographer is appointed and let loose in the glorious post-1952 archive at Windsor. This year, for example, a 1965 file slipped through into the Public Record Office, and it showed how the Queen killed Wilson's gimmicky idea of sending Mountbatten into the rebellious Salisbury, Rhodesia in a Comet decked up as the royal flight and containing Charteris and a detachment of the Brigade of Guards. No 10 was told that if the plan was to go ahead the Sovereign would need formal advice from Wilson publicly, in writing, and that she might reject it.

No sign of passivity or marginality there. Queen Victoria would have been proud of her. I would wager my pension that there's more where that came from - although royal scepticism is more usually displayed at prime ministerial audiences by a tough line of Socratic questioning of her First Minister, followed by a crushing silence; no notes are taken, as no one else is present.

What are the Queen's politics? Thanks to the distorting effects of the Thatcher-infused 1980s, she now strikes some as a genuine lefty - a kind of Tony Crosland in tweeds. This, I think, is a misunderstanding. Pimlott confirms that she is what she has always been, a convinced consensualist shaped by mid-20th century British politics. Lord Charteris said as much publicly, two years ago, when filmed in the Royal Library for a series on early postwar Britain which Robert Shepherd and I made for Channel 4. The Queen is a lefty only in the sense that "Uncle Harold" Macmillan is now portrayed as a kind of socialist by the young and more inflamed ideologists of new right Conservatism. As Denis Healey has said, the brand of politics associated with Lady Thatcher was only possible when the generation who came to maturity in the slump and the war had largely passed from public life. The Queen is the only member of that generation still in post. The words "welfare" and "Commonwealth" still peal for her as the tocsins of a United Kingdom with a global perspective. Her Coronation took place in the period of high consensus when it really did seem as if her domestic realm had cracked the linked problems of social peace and material advance; she must have found the Eighties a narrow and mean- spirited decade.

The 1990s, by contrast, have been a family disaster for her House. Pimlott, understandably given his formation, is no Nigel Dempster with footnotes. His is not the kind of intellect that can handle sucked toes with the aplomb he brings to the taxonomising of political and constitutional networks. The biography is complete in the sense that it is all in there, but, mercifully, he adds no more soiled sheets to the already depressingly high pile of dirty linen.

He is good, however, on the human side of what he calls this "ethnic minority of one", the only public figure who cannot retire until her last heartbeat fades. This may be a cliche. But no human being could be forcibly trapped in the same job for in nearly 45 years without it sometimes seeming hellish - those countless red boxes of documents, the inescapable round of investitures, unveilings and content-free diplomatic occasions. And now every monarchist is wishing another 20 years on her, to give her heir time to sort himself out before taking the throne.

Where nobody has yet succeeded is in bringing out the full, private flavour of the very funny and very shrewd woman behind the public face. As Lord Buxton tells Professor Pimlott in the book, "The Queen doesn't pull the curtain back on what she is thinking and feeling even at her funniest and most outspoken." This is why her daily diary will be such an important historical artefact one day, even though those who have some idea of its contents say that it is like her late father's, largely about the weather.

She must have unburdened herself to one or two people who are still surviving. I suspect Professor Pimlott knows who they are but not even his gentle skills could prise open those treasure troves. They are the loyalest of the loyal. This, however, is his consolation. There will be no better biography of Elizabeth II as a figure of state until her official one appears - and perhaps not even then.

! Peter Hennessy is Professor of Contemporary History at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London; his latest book is 'Muddling Through: Power, Politics and the Quality of Government in Postwar Britain'.