The Queen: Golden Jubilee Edition by Ben Pimlott

Secrets of a pheasant strangler
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The Independent Culture

More has been written about Queen Elizabeth II than about anyone in the kingdom, but in important respects we still know very little about her. Her Majesty is enthroned at the heart of a democracy supposedly dedicated to open government and freedom of information, yet the political role she has played is one of the most closely guarded state secrets.

Nothing is revealed about the advice, encouragement and warning which the Queen vouchsafes to her prime ministers. This means that we remain almost as ignorant about the monarch's influence on Winston Churchill as about her influence on Tony Blair. The Crown not only limits "transparency" now; it restricts the bounds of history. We can't be told what line the Queen took over the Suez crisis or the Falklands, Rhodesian UDI or the miners' strike, the strange elevation of Lord Home or the equally strange non-prosecution of Anthony Blunt. The longer she reigns over us, the more black holes there will be in our past.

So in his admirable attempt to write a clear-eyed academic biography of the Queen, Professor Ben Pimlott has faced severe problems. Archivists, abroad as well as at home, generally capitulate to requests from Windsor to close documents which contain even the mouldiest crumbs from the royal table. Courtiers behave like high priests in an esoteric cult, refusing to divulge information on the most trivial matters – on whether, for example, the "foreign body" which got stuck in the Queen Mother's throat was a fishbone... and on whether the fish in question was a trout.

Other insiders, including politicians accustomed to leaking like drains, become tongue-tied about the crowned mystery. Journalists, who seldom rise above royal gossip, are often thwarted by the organised silence surrounding the Queen. She even prevents (though Pimlott does not say so) the re-broadcasting of Richard Cawston's television film Royal Family; documentary makers who wish to draw on it are confined to snippets from the trailer.

Pimlott manfully contends with the difficulties. This up-dated, "Golden Jubilee" edition of his 1996 biography will be, for many years, the standard work on its sovereign subject. It is far better than its few serious rivals and, of course, in a different league from the usual dynasty drivel. Pimlott's tone is sometimes bracingly sharp: he dismisses the kind of lady-like, home-based "education" Princess Elizabeth underwent as "the British equivalent of binding feet". He is pleasingly alert to the snobbery surrounding the Palace and observes that it extends to the stables: one likely stallion was rejected as mate for a royal mare because it was owned by a bookie.

There are some omissions but very few mistakes in the book, though it does manage to confuse the 1917 Balfour Declaration on the Jewish homeland with the 1926 Balfour Declaration on the Common- wealth. And Pimlott taps an unusually wide range of sources.

Nevertheless, both story and characters are painfully familiar. Gruff "Grandpa England", the stammering, tooth-gnashing father, the mother all saccharine and steel, the wayward sister ("How can we get her out of the gutter?" cries the Queen), the bullying, tactless husband, the accident-prone brood with their train of unsuitable spouses and lovers – all make their due appearances to perform well-worn routines.

Pimlott's Queen, too, offers few surprises. The stern embodiment of tradition, she is reluctant to change anything but her clothes. She has a sense of humour but seldom unbends, certainly not with children. But she strangles pheasants expertly and does show emotion towards horses and dogs; she even shed a tear over the loss of the royal yacht Britannia. The Queen is correct, dutiful, passive, Philistine, dignified, punctual and constant.

We do not get much closer than this to the monarch, who is always centre-stage but rather fuzzy at the edges. This is largely because Pimlott has to rely so heavily on secondary sources. He has no first-hand information about what she reads (Sporting Life excepted) or what she writes in her diary. He doesn't know what she says in private audiences or how she responded to rumours about her husband's infidelities, or what she really thought about Diana, Princess of Wales or Harold Macmillan or anyone else. He can't say how much wealth she possesses or even whether she's as parsimonious as Queen Victoria or Edward VIII. He does disclose that she resents paying Hardy Amies's bills and rebuked her private secretary for making a full declaration to HM Customs of foreign goods she had brought into the country.

To cover his myriad uncertainties Pimlott resorts to euphemism, irony and equivocation. He talks about "royal entanglements" when he means adulteries. He describes how George VI spent "many productive hours" poring over sketches of his new son-in-law's coat of arms – "the most useless of all coats", as Gibbon said.

Time and again, Pimlott uses the mealy-mouthed word "allegedly", as in "the allegedly irresponsible behaviour of the young royals". Perhaps this is the judicious historian, or perhaps the lawyer at his elbow. Or maybe it is the courtier inside Pimlott, who all through this book seems struggling to get out.

The biography, all told, seems a paradoxical production. It provides copious material for the republican case but it is imbued with gut loyalty to royalty. It points out that most of Walter Bagehot's justifications for monarchy no longer apply: a hereditary monarchy, an imperial monarchy, an Anglican monarchy, a family monarchy, all virtually discredited.

In their place, Pimlott suggests that the monarchy might provide a kind of mystical "third way" between government and people, cherishing minorities whose interests politicians neglect. This is about as convincing as New Labour's "third way". But it does remind us of how the royal fetish surreptitiously re-invents itself in order to survive. Pimlott sheds what light he can on the god in the machine, but he evidently fails to appreciate that there is no place for idolatry in democracy.