President Windsor: The Queen Has Spent 60 Years Giving the Impression That the Monarchy Is Somehow Detached from Everyday Political Life. That's What Makes Her Such a Skilled Politician

By Sandbrook, Dominic | New Statesman (1996), May 2, 2011 | Go to article overview

President Windsor: The Queen Has Spent 60 Years Giving the Impression That the Monarchy Is Somehow Detached from Everyday Political Life. That's What Makes Her Such a Skilled Politician


Sandbrook, Dominic, New Statesman (1996)


Imagine that the year is 2015. After the early collapse of the coalition government and the ensuing Labour landslide, Britain is holding the first presidential election in its history. The government's preferred candidate is the rather uninspiring figure of Margaret Beckett, although some left-wing backbenchers support the trenchant John McDonnell, who is running as an independent. The Tories have nominated the veteran Kenneth Clarke, the early front-runner, while the Lib Dems have ended up with Paddy Ashdown. There is also a handful of independents, adding to the gaiety of the proceedings. Lembit Opik's campaign has been an exercise in self-mortification, and, if the polls are right, very few voters are likely to tell Lord Sugar "You're hired".

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But as the campaign has gone on, the winner's identity has become steadily more obvious. In an age of widespread political alienation, it is perhaps not surprising that so many people should want to vote for an independent. More surprising, perhaps, is that so many should vote for an elderly, upper-class woman in her late eighties who has defiantly eschewed many of the conventions of campaigning. Refusing to take part in the televised debates, to record broadcasts or even to give interviews, she has spent much of the campaign walking around shopping centres and visiting hospital wards, occasionally breaking off to watch the horse racing. She promises nothing and has no policies, and yet, wherever she goes, members of the public present her with flowers. Some of them have tears in their eyes. "She's the only one for the job," a local taxi driver told me after she had visited Wolverhampton. "After all, she's been doing it long enough. She's the only one of them with the right experience."

Yes, it is time to face facts. Britain is about to get its first republican president. Her name is Elizabeth Windsor.

Since Britain becoming a republic is about as likely as West Bromwich Albion winning the Premier League, this is a scenario we will never have to face. Anyway, isn't the Queen, as we are often told, defiantly non-political? She has never been known to say anything at all contentious or even interesting, and it is almost impossible to ascribe any political views to her. Even historians rarely consider the Queen as a political actor. When the late Ben Pimlott, having just finished a biography of Harold Wilson, decided to write a life of Elizabeth II, some of his colleagues "expressed surprise, wondering whether a study of the Head of State and Head of the Commonwealth could be a serious or worthwhile exercise".

But, as Pimlott's book proved, the Queen is nothing if not a survivor, and most certainly a political animal. She has, after all, worked with 12 British prime ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill, as well as 14 prime ministers from New Zealand, plus 12 Australians and 11 Canadians. She has met almost every major international leader since the 1950s. Nominally, at least, she is or has been the head of state of 32 different realms. Against this background, to see her as anything other than a political actor seems bizarre.

One of the Queen's great achievements, politically speaking, has been to create the impression that the monarchy is somehow detached from the hurly-burly of everyday political life, not so much upper class as transcending class altogether. We often forget that it was not ever thus. At the beginning of the 19th century, George IV was widely reviled as the incarnation of privilege, while Victoria's fondness for Disraeli over Gladstone was well known.

The Queen's grandfather George V played a crucial political role on several occasions. Opening the parliament of Northern Ireland in 1921, he gave a speech about the Irish conflict that was conciliatory to the South and helped open the way for the Anglo-Irish Treaty six months later. During the General Strike of 1926, he advised Stanley Baldwin to take a gender line towards the unions; told they were "revolutionaries", the king replied: "Try living on their wages before you judge them. …

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