Devalued sovereign

Elizabeth: A Biography of Her Majesty The Queen by Sarah Bradford. Heinemann, pounds 20; The Duke had girlfriends! The Queen didn't like Mrs Thatcher! A Royal fashion adviser has blabbed! The 'controversial' biography of HMQ is 'Hamlet' without the soliloquies, says John Campbell
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Heinemann's publicists have done their job well. From all the outraged denunciation it has attracted, you are meant to believe that Sarah Bradford's new biography of the Queen is the most authoritatively indiscreet of all the avalanche of prurient revelations which have embarrassed the monarchy in recent years.

In fact it is a solid, professional but overwhelmingly conventional panegyric which adds little of substance to the mountain of existing royal biographies from Robert Lacey, Anthony Holden, Elizabeth Longford, Jonathan Dimbleby, Kenneth Harris and a dozen more. Sarah Bradford is strongest on the Queen's early life which she has already covered in her (much more scholarly) George VI, published in 1989. She has had access to the royal archives up to 1952; and she makes good use of royal correspondence with the Sitwells. Beyond that, she is neither particularly authoritative nor seriously indiscreet.

Virtually the only ''revelation'' is the suggestion that Prince Philip enjoyed a number of sexual infidelities in the first decade of his marriage. But there is nothing new in this. There was gossip, even in the relatively deferential newpapers of the 1950s, linking his name with the actress Pat Kirkwood. Previous biographers have repeated the rumours of schoolboyish high jinks at the Thursday Club, run by the society photographer, Baron. Sarah Bradford has gone marginally further by openly disbelieving Philip's disingenuous defence, that he was guarded night and day by a detective: ''the exploits of the Prince of Wales with Mrs Parker Bowles while similarly guarded have blown holes in that particular line,'' she writes. And she confidently alleges a string of other girlfriends: ''They include a princess, a duchess, two countesses and other titled and untitled ladies.'' But she does not name them, or give any corroborating evidence; so her assertion remains nothing more than tattle.

This illustrates the peculiar difficulty of royal biography: it is almost wholly dependent on gossip. Admittedly this is a problem for all contemporary history, where the author has no written sources. But politicians lead at least part of their lives on the record, while their colleagues, aides and opponents are usually happy to talk candidly and attributably within a very few years. The political biographer thus has a bank of conflicting but largely verifiable evidence to place before the reader. Readers of royal biography, by contrast, must take much more on trust. The testimony of courtiers is mainly anonymous: on a single page describing the Queen's character, Sarah Bradford cites the views of ''one of her contemporaries who has known her since childhood,'' ''one woman politician,'' ''a relation'', ''one of her fashion advisers,'' ''a former aide'' and ''another relation'' - all unnamed. They may all be unimpeachable sources: but who knows?

A more specific difficulty in writing about the Queen is that following the welter of books, leaks and interviews through which Charles and Diana have competed for public sympathy in the last few years, as well as all the other ghosted material about Margaret, Anne, Fergie and the rest, we know far more about all of them than about the central figure in the whole shooting match, the Queen herself. Inevitably much of this book is concerned with how she has handled the marital disasters of her sister and her children. But while they are the active protagonists, she remains a cypher whose views can only be guessed at. It is Hamlet without the soliloquies.

It is the same with politics. We all think we know what the Queen thought of Mrs Thatcher, that she worried about the Commonwealth and the socially divisive consequences of Thatcherism. But there is virtually no evidence. In 1986 the Sunday Times ran a front-page story claiming to reveal that the Queen was ''dismayed by many of Mrs Thatcher's policies.'' It was immediately denied, as it was bound to be. In about a hundred years our grandchildren will be able to read her diary: until then the biographer has almost nothing to go on.

Very rarely does the mask slip. During the miners' strike she unguardedly remarked to a journalist, presumably thinking it a safe conversational bromide, ''It's all about one man, isn't it?'' There was another dodgy moment in the television film EIIR, when the Queen was heard by millions complaining to President Reagan about the burden of welfare payments in democracies. Sarah Bradford mentions this, but only in a brief aside.

Had she been writing a serious book she would have used these precious glimpses to introduce some discussion of the monarchy's constitutional powers on the one hand and its role in patching the social fabric on the other. She finds room in her bibliography for two important recent books on these two topics - Vernon Bogdanor's The Monarchy and the Constitution and Frank Prochaska's Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy. Between them they make a powerful case for the value of the monarchy: but she shows no sign of having come to grips with either. Prochaska demonstrates the whole royal family's active involvement in an immense range of charitable work without which the welfare state would collapse. He shows this to be a deliberate strategy for the monarchy's survival, originally developed by George V after the Bolshevik Revolution, and consciously followed by his heirs. By actually reading what the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh say in their Christmas messages and other speeches - however banal and anodyne they may appear - Prochaska gets far closer to the Queen's real view of her job than the shallow conventions of royal biography begin to do. The level of Bradford's discussion of the monarch's constitutional powers is illustrated by her comment that ''it was characteristically kind of Elizabeth'' to give Ted Heath the chance to try to form a coalition in February 1974.

Concentrating primarily on the Queen's private life, Ms Bradford paints a depressing portrait of the unchanging stuffiness of court life and the stifling etiquette which still makes it impossible for members of the royal family to relate to one another, let alone to the society beyond the Palace walls. Sadly, Lord Altricham's famous criticism of the narrow social caste from which the royal household is recruited is scarcely less apposite today then it was in 1957. If the family could not cope with ''commoners'' of such antecedents as Diana Spencer and Sarah Ferguson, who on earth can it reach out to?

Though she does not hold the Queen blameless for the disintegration of her family, Sarah Bradford nevertheless praises her dedication and unflinching sense of duty. She cannot bring herself to draw the cruel conclusion from so much of her own evidence. That Elizabeth's narrow interpretation of that duty has led directly to the crisis of public confidence in which the monarchy, for all the good it does, now finds itself.