PROFILE: The Queen Mother: Bigoted, snobbish, profligate

Beneath her legendary charm is a tough old bird who has always managed to con us. By Will Self
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The Independent Online
When a new set of ornamental gates for Hyde Park was unveiled some years ago, I thought to myself that now, at last, the pusillanimous British public will take a long hard look at this monarchy of ours - and get rid of them once and for all. For the gates, which were erected in honour of the Queen Mother, looked - with their rampant unicorns and lions, and their petrified convolvulus of silvery fretwork - as if they'd come straight out of a fairy tale. Fairytale gates = fairytale monarchy. But, as ever, I was underestimating the great capacity of the British public to suspend disbelief in this expensive string of clothes horses.

Damn it all, if we can withstand tape transcripts of the faithless heir (motto: "Semper non fidelis") working his way, via the method, into the mind-set of a tampon; and we can tolerate the beatification of his mind- bendingly gauche, Sloaney wife, too - then I daresay we can cope with anything else they have to fling at us. Prince Wills a junkie? No worries - his great-uncle was one, too; just make sure the royal hypodermic has been sterilised. Prince Harry a homosexual? Fine - we've had a fair few of them, but be careful with that poker, flunkey!

No, I fear the only thing that could conceivably reduce the House of Windsor to its proper status as a badly decorated Barratt Home, would be a generous dollop of dirt being divulged concerning its real - rather than titular - head: the good old Queen Mum. (The sad, mad Bowes-Lyon relatives discovered hidden in the attic were, I'm afraid, merely par for the course.) Ah! Bless her! Did you see her at Clarence House the other day, welcoming the crowds who'd come to wish her a happy 99th birthday? Now that's true nobility - and real royalty. Given the recent deaths of the King of Jordan and the King of Morocco, surely we must all be worrying that the Queen Mum's imminent demise will have the same effect on our populace? That the streets will be crowded with headless-chicken citizenry, wondering how the nation will survive now that she's gone?

In the case of the two dead monarchs, BBC commentators were quick to observe (and re-observe ad nauseam) that many of their subjects had never known a time without them, indeed could not conceive of a future without them - and these two were mere striplings when compared with the Queen Mum. I mean to say, no one under 60 has ever known a time when Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was not either the power beside the throne, or the power behind it.

Of course, for those significantly over 60 there can be little difficulty in understanding why this should be so. If the Queen Mum's first love - that terminal epigone, the Duke of Windsor - had retained the throne, there wouldn't even be a Britain left to rule over. The British anschluss would have probably occurred in the same year as the Austrian one, ensuring our participation in - rather than opposition to - the Thousand Year Reich. Instead we got the stammering younger brother, and his by-then wife, the fantastically conscientious Elizabeth, who is widely credited with "saving" the British monarchy.

How exactly did this daughter of a Scottish aristocrat, who had never opened a pair of curtains for herself, or cooked a meal, or balanced a chequebook, or probably even tied her own shoelaces, manage to pull off such an astonishing coup? Especially in the early Thirties, when much of the citizenry didn't have curtains, meals, chequebooks or shoes. I think the answer lies, in part, in her legendary charm. Charm, as Cocteau so wisely observed, "is that quality which solicits the answer `Yes' before the question has even been posed". In other words it's a manipulative bluff. The British people have been saying "yes" to the Queen Mother's confidence trick for decades now, without even understanding what it is.

On the face of it, the material she had to work with wasn't inspiring; and indeed the Windsor bloodline, despite her own infusion of new genes, has conspicuously degenerated over the last two generations. (Incidentally, if you ever wonder why it is that horseracing is the sport of kings, it's because racehorses, like royalty, are subject to highly selective breeding. And like royalty the results of this are often good sports or monsters quite as much as champions.) None the less, Elizabeth was able to coach the stammerer into presenting a wartime portrait of doughty courage. Yes, together they toured the East End and withstood the Blitz, and - if you believe this you'll believe anything - lived on their ration books. It would be churlish to point out that they had so many holes to bolt into that such "courage" was purely notional when compared with that of their subjects. But then I am a churl.

No, she had a good war, and she had a good peace as well. She managed to convince the British people that the Royal Family were a kind of super middle-class creation: Mr and Mrs Khan and their corgi, Genghis. The reason the biscuit tin and the mug became the favoured items of memorabilia is that Elizabeth sought to insinuate her family into the nation's teatime, as a vicarish presence. When George VI - displaying a flair for timing that was utterly absent in his lifetime - upped and died, the way was clear for her to inhabit her logical position as the eminence cerise, the bolster behind the throne. And like a very slightly animated sofa - Norman Hartnell really should have been in soft furnishings - that's where she's stayed ever since. Notoriously, the Queen defers to her, and the Tampon Apparent, too. Doubtless the little Lil-lets are in complete awe.

It's currently being touted that the Queen Mother is on the verge of acceding to a meeting with Camilla Parker Bowles, the Royal Mistress, despite the fact that she is legendarily opposed to divorce. Opposed to divorce, but not - it is rumoured - to dumping the troublesome Diana. No, I daresay, because what the Queen Mother really stands for is that odious informal motto of the Windsors: "Never explain, never complain". That's why she couldn't stand Diana - she was rocking the Firm's boat, putting the spondulicks at risk.

Because what's the reality of all this? The Queen Mother is a woman of dyed-in-the-silk, wholly unreconstructed bigotry. She's a spendthrift who's been known to run up overdrafts of four million quid, and a glutton for luxury who maintains a fleet of limos and a flock of flunkeys. She's a racist and a hang 'em and flog 'em reactionary. She's a savante idiote, who couldn't recognise T S Eliot when he was actually in the room reading "The Waste Land" to her. Behind that mumsie exterior is a tough old bird who, despite being born with the silver spoon rammed right down her gullet, has never for a second relaxed her avaricious jaws. Yet the real reason why we continue not simply to tolerate her but, in many misguided instances, to worship her, is because of atavistic attitudes of our own, which we find it hard to abandon.

In truth, we know what the Windsors themselves understand only too well. That in a nation which has aristocratic houses whose land holdings date back to before the Norman Conquest, they are mere parvenus. When we seek genuine noblesse oblige we look to our own nobs rather than Low German interlopers. After all, we only invited their ancestor to govern us because we couldn't depend on the homegrowns to defend our established church. The whole status of the monarchy in this country has been entirely provisional since the so-called "Glorious Revolution". No, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon is one of us: bigoted in the way we are, snobbish in the way we are, profligate in the way we are. The historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has characterised Britain in the 20th century as a nation that has "willed itself into decline", and our apparent veneration for this ancient aristo has to be considered a large part of such collective autosuggestion.

And she is also the beneficiary of a truly bizarre piece of serendipity - she's the same age as the century. In a culture in which attention spans tend to be measured in seconds, it's easy to understand why contemplating this antediluvian chunk of avoirdupois should make some people go misty- eyed. "She's been with us all along," they'll say, "she's weathered the years, seen the cavalcade of history. She's a living embodiment of the nation." Indeed she is; the focus of a bizarre, living-ancestor cult, especially since she never makes a public statement of any kind of significance whatsoever. And, no, she hasn't been "with us"; she's been in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot.

Yes, we've subjected ourselves to a rule of charm, a praesidium of politeness. She never even had to pose the question to us: "Do you think I'm authentic?" Because we had already answered "Yes". "Yes" because we don't want to think for ourselves; "Yes" because we don't want to govern ourselves; "Yes" because we still choose to believe that democracy is only demagoguery waiting to happen. But really she is as important to us as the mummy of Lenin was to the Soviet Union; and, frankly, as in need of disposal.