BOOK REVIEW / Let Some Daylight in on the Monarchy: 'The Queen' - Kenneth Harris: Weidenfeld, 20 Pounds
Hennessy, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
THERE are two sides to the modern British monarchy which produce almost limitless possibilities for paradox. Far from acting as a stabiliser in society, it has helped to produce powerful public mood- swings, fuelling both a sense of pessimism and neurotic national self-analysis.
Kenneth Harris's book provides many ingredients for an explanation of this distracting phenomenon. As an observer from the Queen's own generation, he is good at conveying how much Elizabeth II is her father's daughter. She absorbed from him Bagehot's conception of the monarchy as the setter of a national moral tone based upon the 'interesting idea' of 'a family on the throne'. Like George VI, she is a Commonwealth person to her last fibre, the incarnation of that slice of national DNA which sees Britain's past as giving her a singular place in the world, and all beautifully wrapped in immense personal dignity. This fitted Britain like a glove when she succeeded her father in 1952, though it got a little out of hand with the 'new Elizabethanry' surrounding her coronation a year later.
In the Indian summer of her reign, these virtues cause queasiness. As the Prince of Wales told Roy Hattersley recently: 'The coronation was a long time ago and a different climate exists today.' Family values are the stuff of derisive political debate, thanks to 'back to basics', and the Royal Family's personal misfortunes have stimulated prurience in place of long-gone reassurance. As to Britain's place in the world, we cling to bargain- basement great powerdom while refusing to embrace our geopolitical resting place in Europe. Only the Queen seems to see life in the Commonwealth (although South Africa's re-entry will give it a brief flicker).
Bagehot warned almost 130 years ago that daylight should not be let in on the monarchy. It hasn't been. The arc-light of press intrusion has. But the serious constitutional functions of monarchy remain as misty and misunderstood as ever. Even as downy a journalistic bird as Mr Harris fails to realise that the Queen's 'reserve powers' (to dissolve parliament and appoint a PM) were not activated when Ted Heath clung on to No 10 for a weekend in March 1974 while he tried to do a deal with the Liberals. …