PRINCE PHILIP SAID IT FIRST. In the days before royal handlers had to muzzle the Queen’s spouse for his breathtakingly offensive outbursts, he gave an interview to the BBC in which he insisted that the monarchy stood at the heart of Britain—and dubbed it “the Firm.” Always influenced by Philip, Elizabeth II undoubtedly heeded his desire to promote the Royal Family in any way. But she did not need “Phil the Greek,” as he is derisively known to anti-monarchists, to tell her that the monarchy was a major public corporation, and that she was its CEO.
That was her sacred charge, the burden placed upon her 10-year-old shoulders on the day Edward VIII abdicated and her stricken father left the house as Prince Albert, Duke of York to return as King George VI. Even earlier, her grandfather, George V, had openly predicted the wayward Edward would ruin himself in 12 months, and prayed that nothing would “come between Lilibet and the throne.” Now, as she cruises toward her ninth decade, how has the Queen managed this unique family company? What will posterity make of her career on the throne?
Elizabeth herself will not care if later commentators pick over the details of her public and private life, her prime ministers, her children, her corgis, her handbags, her famous hats. One imperative rules her life, and she focuses on it with Zen purity. She is the living incarnation of an institution dating back over 10 centuries, and she must pass it on. That, after all, was the reason she came to the throne in 1952. From the first, she knew she was there for one purpose only: nothing less than the rescue of the family firm. For a sheltered young woman of 25, it was a daunting task. Britain may have had one of the oldest monarchies in the world, but in the first half of the 20th century, kings and kingdoms were toppling everywhere. From the scarcely-known King Zog of Albania, to Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs, czar of all the Russias, they vanished like summer snow.
But the Windsors dug in, and did what it took to survive. In a highly astute and effective piece of corporate rebranding during the First World War, George V unceremoniously ditched the family name of SaxeCoburg-Gotha (too, too German, my dear!) and came up with the wholesome and English-sounding “Windsor.” After the Russian Revolution in 1917, King George also steadfastly refused asylum to the deposed czar and his family, for fear that the “germ” of republicanism might slip into England along with them, and spread like rabies from this tainted band.
In the wider European royal family before the war, the two cousins, “Georgie” Windsor and “Nicky” Romanov, had been so close and so similar in looks that as young men they were routinely mistaken for one another, with Nicholas even humorously accepting congratulations intended for the groom on George’s wedding day. Denied sanctuary in England, Nicholas and his czarina, with all their children and attendants, were shot. For decades, this brutal piece of realpolitik was blamed on Britain’s slippery prime minister David Lloyd George, until newly released state papers showed that George V had personally blocked any government consideration of offering the Romanovs the safety of England’s shores. Nothing could be allowed to threaten the monarchy. The Windsors must survive.
Elizabeth, of course, knew nothing of this when she came into the world eight years later, in 1926. But the lesson was not lost on her during the 1930s as, once again, another crisis loomed for Britain’s royal house. Monstrously needy and mindless of his role, her uncle, Edward, Prince of Wales, was wantonly dissipating the goodwill toward the monarchy that George V had somewhat surprisingly built up. From the family point of view, the shallow, self-indulgent Edward cared only for himself and his reptilian squeeze, the great raptor Wallis Simpson, with her vaunting ambition and insatiable greed. The Royal Family’s attitude to the stylish Wallis gave Elizabeth her lifelong distrust of fashion, glamour and “show.” Like Victoria, the ruler with whom Elizabeth most closely identifies, she learned that duty, not dazzle, was the thing.
But Wallis, alas, would not go away. As Elizabeth grew up quietly at No. 145 Piccadilly, the fragile haven created by her father for the family he adored, one unspoken question hung constantly in the air: would Edward as king risk overturning the monarchy in his bid to marry the well-worn Bessie Wallis Warfield Simpson, now more than ready to join the Royal Family in her turn? He would, and he did. After George V died, Edward VIII precipitated a constitutional crisis by clashing headlong with his prime minister, Stanley Baldwin. If Parliament would not approve Wallis as his bride and Britain’s queen, he would throw away the crown like a spent cigarette. And if he did that—a king voluntarily abdicating for the first time in British history—would the country tamely accept his pathologically shy, stammering brother as a substitute? Or with the growth of socialism and communism worldwide, would Britain give the whole monarchy the royal kiss-off: it’s a new world, comrades, you’re not needed any more?
So grave was the danger that some would have swallowed the hated Wallis in any shape or form. As a 10-year-old, Elizabeth heard about morganatic marriages and other ways of wriggling round the rules. “Why can’t the king have his popsie?” one politician is said to have growled. Well, he couldn’t, no matter how he stamped his feet and screamed. It’s not hard to imagine what Elizabeth made of this childish behaviour, because from the cradle she was perfectly cut out for the top slot. A poster child for first-born girls, Elizabeth became utterly reliable, responsible, attuned to her elders, and strongly motivated to follow altruistic aims. From Edward’s pitiful and protracted dégringolade, Elizabeth took another life lesson: that the power-holder can never expect to rewrite the rules for his own convenience and get away with it. As queen, a key task of her royal leadership would be the maintenance of status, protocol and established “form.”
As Elizabeth grew, those in charge of the training of the mini-monarch ensured a deep grounding in English constitutional history and every other kind of royal history glorified in the British Isles. She was schooled in a unique version of grammatically accurate but perfectly English spoken French, and other accomplishments deemed fit for a queen. But above all, her handlers threw in a lifetime’s conditioning in duty, duty, duty all the way. These days the word is only encountered in connection with the military and the dead, but she was ruthlessly groomed to live by it every day.
So she prepared, waiting for her hour. That came on Feb. 6,1952, in Kenya, where she was staying on the first leg of a state visit to Commonwealth countries handed off to her by her father, George VI, now too ill to travel. After his reign, clouded by his troubled accession, the distresses of the Second World War and his cancer, Elizabeth swept to the throne on a tide of national joy. Although short, not much more that five foot three, she was a perfect English rose with fair colouring and dewy skin, and all the world fell in love with her. Crusty old men like Winston Churchill, her first prime minister, confessed themselves besotted, and hardened newspaper editors babbled of “a new Elizabethan age.”
The first Queen Elizabeth, another world-class CEO, had come eagerly to the throne in 1558, also at age 25. Ever conscious of her redoubtable and iconic namesake, Elizabeth II applied herself just as studiously to her new role. As queen, she perfectly captured the mood of Britain’s post-war recovery, diligently visiting factories to support industry and posing for happy family snaps with Charles and Anne to show solidarity with the nation’s baby boom. But as a born pragmatist, she never took any of this for more than it was. Although surrounded by cheering crowds wherever she went, it made no difference to her essential sense of self. Unlike the needy and sad Diana, Elizabeth never fell for her own PR.
That’s due to the fact that, even though she is royalty, Elizabeth has a robust ordinariness that connects her powerfully with the British people and unites the whole country in an easy-to-manage, low-key comfort zone. Diana was famously celebrated and massively adored, but she appealed mainly to the lower socio-economic groups, above all the great army of the deprived and dispossessed. Her way of working the tabloids, the crowds and the country as a whole was profoundly divisive, with the upper crust and the establishment hating her more and more for every popular success. Elizabeth saw all this, and was not a happy queen.
For she had learned from Elizabeth I a key principle of the British monarchy by which she still abides. Whatever touched the monarch personally could be overlooked, and Elizabeth I repeatedly forgave her last love, the young Earl of Essex, when he “swore he would never serve a bastard and a woman” and sneered at her “crooked carcass.” But nothing must impugn the royal prerogative, or undermine the status of the monarchy in the land.
So when Essex raised a rebellion in 1601, Elizabeth I unhesitatingly gave up her favourite to the block. The same principle explains why the present Elizabeth was so cold to Diana in the princess’s long slow Calvary of ever-deepening distress, and so glacially slow to join in the national mourning when Diana died. Alive or dead, Diana was destabilizing the monarchy, drawing unwelcome media attention, and showing up Charles as a most uncharming prince.
But what does the CEO do when the designated heir is a milquetoast and the crown princess (or “gown princess,” as her detractors whispered in the corridors of power) is maliciously stealing the show? If you’re religious, as Elizabeth is, you pray. For the granite-hearted guardians of the royal realpolitik in 1997, those prayers were answered by the fatal car crash in the Paris underpass. “Now we know God’s an Englishman!” one senior figure exulted. The Queen herself did not rejoice when Diana died. But she was not going to shed crocodile tears, and Diana must not be allowed to call the shots from beyond the grave. So she lingered at Balmoral, ignoring the public demand to rush to London, displaying a truly regal grasp of the old vaudeville adage, “make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait.” They waited, she finally came, and they loved her even more for it.
And that was not the worst of the crises Elizabeth has steered the monarchy through, combining a firm hand with a cool head. Forget the endless, repetitious Royal Family marriage breakdowns, with the world’s media endlessly laundering the Firm’s dirty linen on an industrial scale. Below the surface, the Queen has laboured long and hard to keep the basic structures sound. In her hands, albeit aided by good advisers, “Windsor Holdings Inc.” has weathered a number of recessions and got richer every year, despite the inconvenience of paying income tax for the last dozen years. If the essence of a good CEO is that she or he promotes the profitability of the enterprise, then it has to be said that when the Queen is in her counting house, she does a fine job.
And it’s all the more remarkable in that she has always had a second job, too. While heading up the royal Firm, Elizabeth has also had to serve for more than half a century as the head of U.K. Inc., and has led successive governments as a chairman leads his board. In this role, she has seen many CEOs come and go. From Churchill to Blair, no less than 10 PMs have trooped into Buckingham Palace and knelt to kiss her hand. She has kept a sharp eye on their performance, despite the dismal awareness that however poorly they perform, she can’t kick any of them out of office.
Still, it is a myth that the British monarchy is not political, but serenely independent and above the fray. Elizabeth can and does both influence and intervene, and the weekly audience, when the prime minister of the day drives to Buckingham Palace to make his report, is the high point of her week. As the senior stateswoman not only of Britain but of Europe as a whole, the Queen subtly exercises her governance on issues of the day.
One above all has absorbed her all her life. Throughout her reign she has exerted pressure on all her prime ministers to pay more attention to the Commonwealth than they might otherwise have done. From her first visits to Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the 1950s—when she traversed over 16,000 km in Canada alone—she has steadfastly and almost alone championed the Commonwealth cause. Chairman-like, she has always known when to stay in the background and when to take a stand. Immensely hard-working, she tracks all government issues via the daily delivery of red boxes that accompany her everywhere, even on holiday. Christmas Day may be the only day she does not apply herself to them for hours on end. But she is always hands-off, rather than hands-on.
In her personal life, too, Elizabeth has been above reproach. Since the Queen Mother died, she is the only person in the immediate Royal Family untouched by scandal or divorce. The only whiff of gossip in 50 years alleges that her son Andrew is not Prince Philip’s, but the product of a mid-life love affair when Her Majesty went for a quick canter outside the rails with her horse-racing manager, the Earl of Carnarvon. But the rumour may only exist because her subjects want to believe that she has had one moment of joy in a life otherwise divided between an undutiful husband and her own relentless dutifulness.
Perhaps her greatest success has been in her role as international statesman and national figurehead. In Britain, a survey showed that more people dreamed about the Queen than about anything else. Like any good chairman, she assumes a corporate social responsibility for the nation at large, leading the mourning for a major disaster here or opening a new hospital there. She is equally at home on the international stage, welcoming foreign heads of state and travelling many thousands of miles to carry U.K. Inc. overseas.
Of course, she knows she is far from perfect. All her life she has been censured for not being a performer and not knowing how to charm: on her 1951 visit to Canada, the newspapers demanded, “Why doesn’t she smile more?”—though she protested that she was smiling till her jaws ached. Elizabeth would be the first to admit she has never had her mother’s winsome ways, her sister Princess Margaret’s urge to dance at centre stage or Diana’s lustrous eyes, flashing legs and sideways smile. But after half a century on the throne, even her weaknesses have hardened into strengths. The Diana experience left Britons wary of a Queen of Hearts. Now Elizabeth’s stolid demeanour and un-expressive voice are recognized as a true measure of her worth.
Of course, there have been defeats along the way, above all the loss of the ideal of the Commonwealth. Little by little she has had to watch it fall away in favour of Britain’s closer alignment with Europe and the U.S. Passionately attached to her “family of nations,” the Queen was disgusted with prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath when their enthusiasm for taking Britain into the European Economic Community led them to betray, in her eyes, “the old Commonwealth.” She did not take it personally in 1973 when the Toronto Star raised the question of Canadian independence from Britain, nor when Pierre Trudeau left the country rather than receive her on a visit in 1978. She even has enough humour to have seen the joke when Montreal radio personality Pierre Brassard rang her up just before the 1995 referendum, pretending to be Jean Chrétien. But while Canada and other countries loosen the ties with the mother country and move on, as the mother of the country she mourns the passing of the only real family she has ever known.
For the lifelong pressure of her combined role has cost her the private life she might have enjoyed. Despite a long marriage, with four children and seven grandchildren, she has had little of the pleasure from them that some of her humblest subjects can boast. The dim and arrogant Philip, in a lifelong rage at having to walk always two paces behind, has punished her by spurring rumours of endless infidelities that only age and infirmity may have finally quelled. The eternal state visits and Commonwealth tours when her children were small served to dilute the relationship with all four, and it is no secret that she is disappointed in Charles.
Like all good leaders, she has a compelling vision, but cannot rely on him to follow it. Any chairman or CEO is only as good as her supporters and underlings, and while she has striven tirelessly to preserve and promote the House of Windsor, Charles was engaged in a spectacularly unhappy marriage and ugly divorce, and busily confessing adultery with Camilla Parker Bowles on national TV. He was not alone. Diana had an affair with her bodyguard, Anne was rumoured to have done so, and Philip could not open his mouth without making naff and racist comments.
Now the younger generation are at it in their turn, with Anne’s daughter Zara sporting a tongue piercing and brawling in public. Prince Harry has been drinking, smoking, fighting and doing drugs. To one who has spent her entire existence living and promoting both her own House of Windsor values and the value of the monarchy, it is hard to tolerate insiders going so far off-message that they might as well be off the list of royals altogether.
Charles in particular seems not to understand that actions have consequences and that deeds speak louder than words. Where the Queen demonstrates her values through every public act, Charles does what he wants and then seeks to justify it, with a great sense of grievance at being called to account. Sadly for Elizabeth, she cannot cast around the Firm for the liveliest talent to bring on in his stead. Unlike other CEOs, she can neither choose nor influence her successor. There was a time when the crown of England fell not to the first-born but to the best and brightest of the young royals round the throne, as it still does in some Arab lands. But no more—and not for a long, long while.
So Elizabeth is saddled with Charles. Politically and constitutionally averse to interfering, she worries that Charles stirs up trouble with his misplaced interventions, his earnest do-goodery and dyspeptic sideswipes at his pet hates like modern architecture. She disapproves of his extravagance and has more than once caustically noted that his retinue of courtiers, servants and advisers outnumbers hers. She will probably never forgive him for the infamous TV interview when he admitted the affair with Camilla, breaking every code that ever was.
As she soldiers on into the sunset, how does the future look to her now? Some years ago she set up a small palace committee charged with planning and charting the Firm’s “Way Ahead.” Reports that Prince Philip was its chair did not inspire confidence, but the Queen does not always do what Philip wants. As usual, she was giving thought to the strategy for the monarchy, and it is clear that were the final plan to be adopted, the vision and its direction would be hers. As long as she remains in charge, all the royal ducks will be lined up in a row.
And then? With uncle Eddie’s awful example still before her eyes, the Queen will never abdicate. The continuity of the monarchy has been her One Big Idea, and at 79, it’s safe to say an idée fixe. Those who think abdication is possible (generally Americans, who founded their nation on the belief that historical precedent can yield to individual will) are not merely barking up the wrong tree but baying at the moon. She will go on till she drops. But sooner or later, that time must come. How will Elizabeth fulfill the good CEO’s final duty: prepare her successor, or at least prepare the way? Charles now carries out regular investitures as the Queen’s proxy, and attends any amount of weddings and funerals, like that of the late Pope’s, on her behalf. But this is all ceremonial. Does he see the red boxes, read cabinet papers and memoranda, sit in on the weekly meetings with the Prime Minister? Not that we know. Charles may come to the throne as unprepared as the ill-fated Nicky. Already royal-watchers are predicting a downturn in performance when Charles takes the reins. Market analysts would doubtless recommend selling stock in Monarchy Inc. when Elizabeth gives up the helm, as huge amounts of the value she built up could be wiped off the company in his unsteady hands.
If Charles succeeds her, his reign can never be as long as hers, nor can he hope to measure up to her lifetime of blameless service now that his faults and follies have been laid bare. William as yet is an unknown quantity. British monarchists are daily on their knees praying that he has his grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s genes, not those of his parents on either side.
When Elizabeth I died after 45 years on the throne, few of her subjects could remember a time when she was not queen. The same could be true for Elizabeth II. Her mental and physical state is remarkable for her years, and her general level of contentment remarkable for any age. If she lives as long as her mother, who died at 101, we shall not see a new king till 2027. There will be new challenges at that time, but at least the world will have (mostly) got over Diana, and Charles and Camilla will be 79 and 80.
And Elizabeth still gets up every day to do her duty, though all the rest of the Firm may be falling down on the job. It’s a cold, hard row to hoe, but it’s very British, it’s familiar, and it’s hers. It is the strongest consolation she has, but there are others too. Like her great forerunner Elizabeth, she knows that she has been deeply, nationally loved. After 52 years on the throne, she also has the satisfaction of knowing that only one English monarch has ever reigned for longer, and that she may well cap Queen Victoria’s 64 years. But back to Charles, as we must. Après her, le déluge? She certainly asks herself this question. Could she be looking at the end of the monarchy, and the inauguration of People’s Republic of Britain? Most unlikely, but stranger things have happened. Alas for Elizabeth, she will never know.