Living life for the common people

The glue that sticks the nation together or a barrier to the developmen t of a mature democracy? John Campbell investigates the role of the Queen in today's society The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II by Ben Pimlott, HarperCollins, pounds 20
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The news that Ben Pimlott was writing a biography of the Queen raised eyebrows. It seemed an incongruous, even perverse, project for a hitherto exclusively Labour historian. Why should he want to do it? Would he have the necessary contacts? What could he possibly bring to a subject already copiously covered by well-connected royal specialists like Elizabeth Longford, Anthony Holden and (earlier this year) Sarah Bradford?

Such doubts reflected a long-standing convention - combining academic snobbery with inverted social snobbery - that serious writers did not bother with the monarchy. The Queen was both personally uninteresting and politically unimportant: not so much beyond criticism - as she was at the beginning of her reign - as beneath it. The Independent in its early years had a policy of burying royal stories in three lines at the bottom of page two, or even ignoring them entirely. Elsewhere gossip had replaced gush, but royal-watching was still the preserve of the tabloids.

Today all that has changed. The functions and future of the monarchy are now matters of consuming interest - not least in The Independent. (Only members of the Government and Opposition still dare not join in). By luck or shrewd judgement, Pimlott's book is perfectly timed to give historical focus to this burgeoning debate.

He has succeeded triumphantly in his unlikely project. He has written a book which can be enjoyed and admired by people who would never have imagined reading any previous royal biography. He has done it not by adapting his approach to the conventions of the genre, but by deploying the same skills he has previously brought to Harold Wilson and Hugh Dalton. What he has written is not a "royal biography" at all, but a political biography whose subject happens to be not a Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer, but Queen. He has got round the problem that so little is known about Her Majesty's private opinions not by speculating on the basis of hints and hearsay but by sticking firmly to the sources he has been able to assemble - which turn out to be surprisingly good. If the result is a study heavily weighted to the monarch's public role, then that is entirely proper in portraying a woman who has almost totally subsumed her private personality in her public duty.

Pimlott is frankly less interested in the Queen herself than in the changing iconography of the monarchy over her lifetime: the way her image has been manufactured and manipulated from babyhood onwards to suit the political needs of the Government and Establishment of the day. This has its personal side: the rapturous accounts of "the little Princesses", Lilibet and Margaret Rose, were a priceless antidote to the Abdication; pictures of Elizabeth in ATS uniform doing her bit with a spanner helped the war effort; her wedding was an excuse for the first national celebration after the war, temporarily dispelling the gloom of economic crisis and continuing rationing.

But it also has a more mystical aspect. The Coronation had a real effect in reinforcing national identity, the idea of a New Elizabethan Age marking a genuine sense of an optimistic new beginning; 25 years later the Silver Jubilee - in the middle of another period of national doom and gloom - showed a remarkable persistence of faith in the monarchy; while even last year, with most of the magic gone, the appearance of the Queen and her mother on the palace balcony was still the symbolic climax of the VE-Day anniversary. Pimlott shows how both Harold Wilson and Ian Smith sought to use the Crown for opposite purposes at the time of Rhodesian UDI; how the Thatcher Government exploited Prince Andrew's participation as a helicopter pilot to fuel patriotic enthusiasm for the Falklands war; and how skilfully - at least in the early years of the reign - different images of the Queen were projected to appeal to different countries of the Commonwealth. He meticulously marks the steps by which the Palace, in the person of successive private secretaries and press secretaries - first came to terms with and then tried - unsuccessfully - to control the ever-growing public appetite for information about the royal family. He is gently satirical about some of the early manifestations of loyal gush; but coming at the subject from a primarily political perspective, he has a keen sense of the strategic calculations that lay behind even the most sickly fantasy-mongering - until, that is, it all went horribly wrong.

Contrary to expectations, he has gained access to some excellent sources. He has naturally made good use of the public records, the Royal Collection (up to 1952) and the papers of politicians; he is particularly strong on the dealings of Labour Governments with the Palace on sensitive matters like the Civil List. But as well as the familiar published diaries, he has found sharp insights in the unpublished diary of Jock Colville, who between his two spells as Churchill's private secretary served Princess Elizabeth in the same capacity.

The Avon papers have yielded a regular correspondence between the Queen and Sir Anthony Eden, after his fall, commenting frankly on the performance of his successors. The Kennedy Archive in Washington has thrown up a chatty letter to JFK, mixing politics and family gossip; another letter from the Royal Collection to her racing manager Lord Porchester, all about Dr Nkrumah, has somehow slipped through the Palace net. He has also got hold of a correspondence with her dressmaker, Hardy Amies, full of tart reminders of the need for economy. None of this is sensational, but it gives the book more of the spice of the Queen's own words than previous biographies have managed.

Then there is interview material, a high proportion of which is openly attributed. Inevitably there is still a good deal of "a courtier commented", "a former lady of the bedchamber recalls", referenced in the notes as "confidential interview". But those who have spoken on the record include the former principal private secretary Lord Charteris, the former assistant private secretary Sir Edward Ford and - most remarkably Princess Margaret. Such high-level sources lend this book an unprecedented authority.

Pimlott is undeniably weaker on the human side. His account of the Queen's marriage is surprisingly thin. Prince Philip's rumoured infidelities do not interest him: this is a matter on which he has no serious evidence, so as a good historian he leaves it alone. More questionably, since the collapse of her children's marriages is a matter of public concern, he offers very little discussion of the Queen's alleged shortcomings as a mother. The defence that "there are many women today who find it necessary to delegate responsibility for their children because of employment that is less demanding than being a Monarch" may be true; but it is still a bit of a cop-out.

Altogether the book falls off towards the end. Perhaps recent events - the tawdry shenanigans of Charles and Di and Fergie are just too familiar, and Pimlott has nothing new to say about them. There is a sense of relief in the final chapter when he gets back on his own ground with a brief summary of the case for republicanism. For a moment he seems to have some sympathy with the abolitionist argument that the survival of the monarchy corrupts the entire body politic, making us all "subjects" instead of "citizens" and rendering impossible the development of a mature democracy.

All the traditional arguments put forward since 1953 to justify the monarchy - the unity of the Empire, the preservation of the social pyramid, the model family - have crumbled. But then he turns the argument on its head: the "golden thread" of the monarchy is so inextricably woven through the national fabric that it cannot be unstitched without intolerable damage. The monarchy is not a barrier to social progress, but in fractured post- Thatcherite Britain a source of social cohesion, even a check on the excesses of the loony Right. His final paragraph would not have disgraced Crawfie herself. If Pimlott was not a royalist when he started, writing this book appears to have made him one.