Magazine article The Spectator

Yes, Ma'am

Magazine article The Spectator

Yes, Ma'am

Article excerpt

How the Queen redefined her role, with a little help from Sir Humphrey

Less than four months away from her Diamond Jubilee - only the second in history - we still tend to forget that we have the oldest monarch (85) and oldest consort (90) in history. We see a monarch who is reassuringly unchanged - and unchanging - in an uncertain world.

It is an integral part of her appeal, at home and overseas. In Australia right now, the republican tide is out. Invited to field a 'royal' phone-in on national Australian radio earlier this week, I was struck by the consistent level of affection for the Queen. In half an hour, I encountered only one and a half republicans. It could have been Radio Royal Berkshire.

Yet what lies at the root of the Queen's enduring popularity is not her small-c conservatism. It is, actually, quite the opposite.

It is the fact that she has steered the monarchy through more change in the last 25 years than her predecessors managed in the previous century.

This is the Queen who dumped the debutantes, invented the walkabout and let the cameras through the door. She has transformed the Edwardian culture of the Palace and the Victorian structure of the royal household. She has stabilised the royal finances and moved them off the Civil List for the first time since the French Revolution.

But perhaps most intriguingly of all, she has quietly, beneath the media's radar, rewritten the entire job description of the sovereign. She's created a new manifesto for future monarchs; the guidelines which younger royals will follow when they take the reins. But the curious thing is that the Queen hasn't done this historic and crucial work in consultation with an earnest committee of dusty constitutionalists. Rather, I have discovered, she has been inspired by one of our foremost comic scriptwriters.

For the last two years, I have had privileged access to the world of Elizabeth II while writing my new book, Our Queen , an insider's view of the modern monarch and the monarchy. I have met those who work with the Queen (from her footmen to her private secretaries to her prime ministers). I have met members of the royal family. Granting his first interview to an author, Prince William has given me an endearing appraisal of his 'incredible' grandmother, explaining how she separates 'personal' from 'duty', how she has no interest in 'celebrity' - and how she helped him reclaim his own wedding guest list from officialdom (even if she was unyielding about his choice of uniform).

And, unlike his predecessors, Prince William now has an extra text from which to learn the royal trade. Every royal child since the Victorian age has studied the same instruction manual, Walter Bagehot's English Constitution. It was Bagehot, of course, who defined the three key rights of a constitutional monarch: the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn.

But Bagehot was writing for another age.

As the royal family endured the 1990s - the decade of marital discord, the Windsor blaze, the Panorama appearance of the Princess of Wales and her shocking death - the monarchy was feeling as vulnerable as at any stage since the abdication.

'We looked at everything, ' says a former private secretary. 'We had to ask: "What the hell are we supposed to be doing?"' The answer, it now turns out, was articulated by a man best-known for television comedy.

As the co-creator of Yes, Minister and Ye s, Prime Minister, Sir Antony Jay has helped to define a generation's thinking on the dynamic between elected and unelected servants of the state. Yet he also played a key role in two important royal landmarks. In 1969, he wrote the script for Royal Family, the first royal documentary. To many viewers (certainly British ones), the sight of a royal family barbecue remains more vivid than the other broadcasting sensation of that summer - the moon landings. It was Sir Antony who then co-wrote the script for the BBC's award-winning 1992 film on the role of the Queen, Elizabeth R. …

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