Restoring a Royal Portrait

By Vincent, John | The Spectator, October 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Restoring a Royal Portrait


Vincent, John, The Spectator


THE POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES OF EDWARD VII by Simon Heifer Weidenfeld 20, pp. 342

Edward VII was a Good King. Unlike Victoria, he was deeply mourned by the populace, for reasons hard to explain. Perhaps it was that he lived in London, apart from the three months of the year spent abroad. Perhaps it was that he did not ask the taxpayer for money: Sir Ernest Cassel, his Jewish banker, did what was necessary. Unlike his mother, he did net have a large brood of offspring needing support: his inoffensive two compared well with Victoria's nine. Besides not irritating the public, he actually did his job, or the visible part of it; from 1901 he attended the State Opening of Parliament. The Queen, alas, had not attended since 1886, and had gone only six times in the 25 years before that. Moreover, Edward read the Speech from the Throne for the first time since 1861. Pageantry and anachronism returned overnight to English life.

It would be cheap to suggest that his three months abroad each year were holiday. Obese and with respiratory problems, he needed them as part of his personal struggle to stay alive. They were also part of his effort to have the career Victoria denied him, to place himself at the centre of things. Working intimately with the Foreign Office, he, the so-called Uncle of Europe, took the pulse of the European courts. Domestic politics too might follow him abroad. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, his favourite prime minister, was like the King a habitue of Marienbad, and one summer the King dined with Sir Henry every night for a fortnight. Wherever he went, he was a working British politician to the fingertips.

In the early days, he aroused cries of `King of the Jews' and his box at the theatre was known as the Loose Box. But, fortified by effective bigamy, he ended his days widely known as `Edward the Peacemaker'. Ministers might resent this; Arthur Balfour, with his immeasurable intellectual superiority, took care to plant a black legend for posterity's consumption of Edward the insignificant, marginal figure, Edward the posturing dunce. It is Mr Heffer's task, using mountains of royal papers, to argue otherwise.

In foreign policy, Edward was a peacemaker. He worked hard at stopping bad relations with our future allies, France and Russia, the countries most sensible men of his generation expected to fight in 1900. He worked hard on the Tsar. He showed real touch in turning French public opinion from moody rivalry to amitie, and this though as a Bonapartist he did not in principle believe there should be a French republic. His efforts in France created the atmosphere which made possible the Anglo-French agreements of 1904. With crowned heads he was less sure - the Kaiser he found impossible.

Edward was a peacemaker, then, who reduced our minor frictions, only to make it more likely that we would be dragged into major war in 1914. Against that must be set his work as army reformer. The details do not matter here: they concern years of service and the like, but they had baffled generations of Victorians.

As Heffer presents it, the King decided with his eminence grise, Esher, what he wanted; the eminence grise told Haldane, the war minister; Haldane laid the proposals before the King, who graciously assented to his own suggestions and Haldane goes down in history as a great reformer. Here, the importance of monarchy lay in the power it gave to a kitchen Cabinet of first-rate, non-accountable, publicly invisible men. …

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