On the publication day of The Last Queen, read an extract from Clive Irving's book below...
Someone was missing from every story written about the Queen: the Queen.
Fleet Street editors in the late 1950s treated coverage of the monarchy as both a daily obligation and, usually, a chore. With Princess Margaret slipping into the background (for the moment), the coverage was usually left to the small core of reporters accredited to the palace. Few reporters wanted the job. Few who had the job had any curiosity beyond the platitudes fed to them. They did get some exotic travel opportunities, though – particularly when the Queen toured the countries of her Commonwealth. The world empire was in the process of being subsumed into this very different arrangement. The newly independent nations were encouraged – but not obliged – to retain a familial feeling towards the ‘mother’ country, and, of course, towards the Queen. Moving from subjection to association (with benefits) was achieved partly because the Queen took the task seriously and because she had absolutely no whiff about her of Victorian racial superiority. She was, it seemed, naturally anodyne. In a tour that lasted for more than five months she gave 102 speeches without causing offence. She had a script, and she read it.
But that quality of inoffensiveness had its drawbacks. At home, without the exotic backdrops, the Queen had fallen into a robotic style of speaking. There was no sense of spontaneity or natural affinity for any setting other than the one place where she really seemed to be engaged with her surroundings: the racetrack. The Queen became more openly excited about horses than she did about people.
In the summer of 1957, I moved from the Daily Sketch to the Daily Express as deputy features editor. Geographically, it was a move of less than a quarter of a mile, to a 1930s architectural classic in black glass fronting Fleet Street itself. Professionally, it was the difference between night and day. Lord Beaverbrook encouraged a profligate newsroom that had permanent correspondents in every major world capital. The paper pioneered popular criticism of the arts. It had the sharpest social eye in the cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, and the best sports writers. But it also had to suffer the daily interventions of its owner, who steered every word of the political coverage and retained an attachment to the idea of the British Empire that was as entertaining as it was nuts. Because of that, the paper saw the monarch in an abstract way, respecting her as the disembodied figurehead of the imperial system, just as she was ensconced on the coinage and postage stamps. Behind her was the medieval figure that Beaverbrook designed as the paper’s icon – a Crusader knight with shield and sword, steadfast in dominating the alien peoples.
Soon after I joined the Express in the summer of 1957, the newsroom responded to a tip and sent out for a copy of the latest issue of a quarterly magazine that no editor had ever heard of – The National and English Review. It was the Friday of a bank holiday weekend, and the office was lightly staffed and somnolent. The magazine’s lead article changed all that, and would also seriously rattle the monarchy.
Among its points was that:
The monarchy will not survive, let alone thrive, unless its leading figures exert themselves to the full … When she has lost the bloom of her youth, the Queen’s reputation will depend, far more than it does now, upon her personality … Unfortunately the relatively classless character of George V is not reproduced in his granddaughters … The Queen and Princess Margaret still bear the debutante stamp … The Queen’s style of speaking is a pain in the neck … She comes across in her speeches as a priggish schoolgirl …Like her mother, she appears to be unable to string even a few sentences together without a written text…
The author of the article was 33-year-old John Grigg, 2nd Baron Altrincham, an Old Etonian with a habit of attacking his own class. He campaigned for reform of the House of Lords, correctly pointing out that many hereditary peers were ‘not necessarily fitted to serve’. At the Express, we realised that Altrincham expressed a feeling that had been growing since the coronation, that the Queen increasingly lived in and represented a world that seemed insulated from reality. There was no way of knowing how general this feeling was. But it had never been articulated in such a blunt and personal way before.
The Express – like other papers, not ready to be complicit in the attack – decided to have it both ways. In the news pages, Altrincham’s words were quoted in detail and treated as a sensational personal assault on the Queen. But the editorial page condemned Altrincham as ‘destructive’ and ‘vulgar’. The Sunday Times went further, sounding preposterously like the membership committee of an Edwardian gentlemen’s club, calling him ‘a cad and a coward’. Following that lead, Altrincham was physically assaulted in the street by a bellicose member of the League of Empire Loyalists. The Archbishop of Canterbury called him ‘a very silly man’.
One of Altrincham’s observations that got less attention was that the Queen had had ‘woefully inadequate training’ to prepare her to be the monarch. This was cleverly shifting the problem from the Queen herself to unnamed people, most obviously the courtiers, of whom Lascelles would be the most culpable. But the problem was really larger than one person: the Queen that we saw and heard, the Queen that we reported on, was the product of a formal framework in which the whole appearance, tone and style thought fit for a monarch was imposed on her from an early age. Had she passively surrendered to this system without resistance? Or was it possible that she had been advised against asserting a tone and identity of her own? If so, who was she when allowed to be herself?
That fundamental question could not be answered, because all of the commentary, whether supporting Altrincham or the Queen, was directed at somebody that nobody really knew. For that matter, it could be argued that the newspapers had colluded in creating the version of the Queen that Altrincham was so harsh about because in many respects we (and the BBC) controlled the monarchy’s public image as much as the palace did, based on a similar concept of its tone. No reporter and certainly no BBC producer had ever dared to say that the Queen’s speaking style was a pain in the neck – although it was. That really made us seem as clueless about how a modern monarch should appear as Lascelles and the others who had nurtured Elizabeth over the years, and this could explain why, on the whole, the newspapers reacted so pompously and peevishly to the criticism. Fleet Street and the palace were locked in a mutually reinforcing delusion of what was right, and the Queen was taking the heat for it.
As it turned out, Altrincham soon heard that the Queen’s first response to his attack was to say that he must be mad. Writing about his experience more than a decade later, Altrincham said that the Queen:
had been treated, since her accession, to such a concentrated dose of flattery, not to say worship, that she must indeed have been surprised to find herself the butt of criticism. I was sorry to have hurt her feelings, but a continuation of the infallibility cult would in the long run have inflicted much graver hurt.
The Chief Metropolitan Magistrate who dealt with the man who had assaulted Altrincham, letting him off with a modest fine, said that 95 per cent of the public found Altrincham’s critique offensive. That was not true. A public opinion poll showed that 35 per cent of those polled agreed with Altrincham, while 52 per cent disagreed. However, among those in the younger age group of sixteen to thirty-four the result was reversed: 47 per cent supported him and 39 per cent opposed him.
Who could provide a candid and objective view of the woman behind the mask as she then was? Even the most dutiful newspaper editor knew nobody equal to that task. At the Express, with all its expansive newsroom resources, there was not even the wish to try, nor did any other paper apparently feel the absence of an honest contemporary view of the woman at the centre of the royal narratives. In fact, it would take more than sixty years for such a flashback view to surface, and when it did it was hard to imagine a sketch of the Queen written with more lapidary skill – surely the equal in words of Goya’s portrait of Charles IV of Spain and his family, one of the most subtly seditious royal portraits ever.
The difference is that, unlike Goya’s 1800 masterpiece, this was a portrait of the Queen that was never intended to see the light of day. It was written by James Pope-Hennessy as he was gathering material for his biography of Queen Mary and surfaced in Hugo Vickers’s 2018 book The Quest for Queen Mary. In this book, Vickers serves as one royal biographer exposing the technique of another, Pope-Hennessy, by revealing all the notes made by Pope-Hennessy as he worked his way through interviews with every still-living stem of Queen Mary’s extensive European family tree. The published biography, though deftly written, omitted all the choicest of Pope-Hennessy’s notes about these encounters and it is thanks entirely to Vickers that we now have them in possibly the funniest book about the royal family ever written.
Three weeks after Altrincham’s tirade, Pope-Hennessy visited Balmoral while the royal family were at their regular summer retreat. It was his first visit there. He was a very sensitive architectural critic (he gives a devastating assessment of Sandringham, making it sound like a decaying grand hotel in some deserted Alpine resort) but found Balmoral ‘far lighter, whiter, prettier and more spacious than I had imagined’.
His introduction to the Queen was disconcerting. After shaking hands, and a banal exchange about where Pope-Hennessy was staying, there was ‘a three-minute silence, during which she looked at the lowering sky out of the window. I thought she hadn’t heard; but as it seemed like a new technique of conversation I remained silent too.’ After a description of the Queen’s clothes – ‘tartan skirt, a little olive-green tweed jacket and a complicated raspberry-coloured blouse’ – he delivers his more personal portrait. I am quoting it at length because there is no equal to it in any contemporary account:
By no stretch of the imagination can this Queen be called an historical figure. About the lower part of the face, which juts out more than one expects, she has a slight look of Queen Mary and Queen Charlotte, but that is all. She looks a little careworn, with lines from nose to mouth, and could easily arouse one’s compassion were it not for some element which is hard to define – smugness would be too crude and unkind a word – it is rather that she clearly does not feel inadequate. She is not shy, but she is clearly living at great tension, and does not give an impression of happiness. Her hands are thin and worried-looking. She is extremely animated, gesticulates when telling anecdotes, makes comic or pathetic faces, and simply cannot remain still. One feels that the spring is wound up very tight. She is brisk, jerky and a little ungraceful … She is kind and business-like and somewhat impersonal; her mother is far more feminine and knows how to simulate an interest in whoever she is talking to, whereas the Queen just talks, and sometimes is too busy trying to listen in to what her mother is saying across the table to catch on … On the whole it is clockwork conversation, not at all difficult on either side, but not, on the other hand, memorable, interesting, or worth the paper it could be typed upon.
Pope-Hennessy makes no mention of the Altrincham effect, but it surely must have been an influence at the time, like a noxious mist clinging to the Balmoral carpets and tartan rugs. More crucially, it is worth parsing this description for clues to the behaviour of both the past and future monarch: ‘she is living at great tension’ and ‘does not give an impression of happiness’ are, for example, blunt and confident assessments that raise many questions.
Elizabeth was thirty-one years old and had been Queen for five years. Her apprenticeship covered a period that would have been seriously challenging for a far more seasoned monarch. Churchill, her first mentor in affairs of state, had finally stepped down in 1955, replaced by his long-time understudy, Anthony Eden. Eden then led the country into the disastrous military adventure that would turn out to be the terminal spasm of imperial power. General Gamal Abdel Nasser, the new Prime Minister of Egypt, announced that he was going to take over control of the Suez Canal, then jointly owned by France and Britain. The canal was seen as the inviolate property of the two European powers and Britain’s crucial umbilical link to Middle Eastern oil. Eden told colleagues, ‘Nasser must not have his hand on our windpipe.’ The two governments then secretly colluded with Israel: the Israelis would invade the Sinai, and Britain and France would intervene on the pretext of stopping a war.
The plot was concealed from the public and a wartime level of censorship was imposed on the press and on the BBC. Among the military planners there was at least one dissident: the First Sea Lord, Mountbatten. Mountbatten went to the Queen to complain. It was an extraordinary act for a military commander to go directly to the monarch behind the back of a Prime Minister, but Mountbatten, as we have seen, had extraordinary access and influence at the palace. At Mountbatten’s suggestion, the Queen asked Eden if before committing the country to intervening at Suez he would consult Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour opposition. Eden refused.
Soon after it began, the invasion was halted. America opposed it as a misbegotten relapse into gunboat diplomacy. Eden’s premiership was destroyed. Nevertheless, a large part of the country thought Nasser should have been eliminated. What is forgotten now about the Suez crisis is that it divided the country in the same way and along many of the same inherent fault lines as Brexit. The issue became a crude litmus test of patriotism: opposing Eden was to betray Britain’s world mission. Only two newspapers, the Manchester Guardian (as it then was) and The Observer, opposed the adventure from the start, and both were publicly reviled for it – even The Observer’s relatively liberal readership was divided, according to letters sent to the editor, with 866 supporting Eden and 302 against. As a result of its stand, The Observer suffered a boycott by major advertisers that lasted for years and helped the rise of the rival Sunday Times, which had supported the invasion. But in the wider world it was obvious that Suez was a humiliating debacle for Britain.
If she had any acuity at all, the Queen must have been shaken to witness such a serious rupture in the composure of her nation and one wonders what lessons she took away from the experience. It would prove to be one of the most damaging political crises of her reign – the country was nearly bankrupted by it. In this instance, Mountbatten had been a realist while all those around him had been swept up in hubris. One thing she is likely to have resented is Eden’s refusal to consult the Leader of the Opposition. Later, as she grew more assured in her audiences with Prime Ministers, she would surely not have let such a thing pass so readily. By that time the occupants of Downing Street realised that she was always well briefed on their political opponents and their policies and that she preferred consensus to deep divisions. Certainly, Suez had found her too conditioned by a phalanx of courtiers who were mostly lifelong jingoists. Eden was gone by January 1957, replaced by Harold Macmillan, a much more skilled politician whose outward appearance of an Edwardian grandee concealed an astute ability to gauge the public mood – a gift that neither the Queen nor those around her showed any sign of acquiring, even after the impertinence of Altrincham’s critique. Pope-Hennessy’s observation, ‘One feels that the spring is wound up very tight’, could have many causes, both within the family, as in the row about the family name, and in the nation itself.
Altrincham’s assertion that the monarchy might not survive unless the Queen was transformed in voice and attitude rested, in turn, on a basic assertion that the monarchy was ‘out of touch’. It was a charge that would recur for decades, culminating in the way the Queen and the palace reacted to the death of Princess Diana in 1997. But what did ‘out of touch’ actually mean – or, rather, what would it take for them to become ‘in touch’? Was such a transformation ever going to be compatible with sustaining the legend of the monarchy? At this moment in 1957 it could truly be said that to her subjects and the world, the young woman on the throne was an enigma clothed in the garments of a legend, and the legend was dominant.
Want to find out more about the woman behind the legend? Buy your copy of The Last Queen here.