When the late historian Sir Ben Pimlott began his 1996 biography, his colleagues expressed their surprise that he thought Queen Elizabeth II was worth serious study at all. Still, Pimlott’s judgment proved correct and, while few academics have followed suit, the political role of the monarchy has received thoughtful treatment in the creative arts.
Stephen Frears’ 2006 film, The Queen, showed her dilemma following the death of Princess Diana; Peter Morgan’s play The Audience depicted the monarch’s weekly meetings with her prime ministers. And she’s been shown generally positively and sympathetically in both Netflix’s acclaimed drama series The Crown and even in Mike Bartlett’s speculative play King Charles III, about the difficulty her heir would face filling her shoes.
Elizabeth’s reign was a delayed consequence of the 1936 abdication crisis, the defining royal event of the 20th century. Edward VIII’s unexpected abdication pushed his shy, stammering younger brother Albert to the throne as King George VI. Shortly after, he was pushed into the role of the nation’s figurehead during World War II.
The war was the most important formative experience for his eldest daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Her experience as a car mechanic with the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) meant that she could rightfully claim to have participated in what is called the ‘People’s War’.
The experience gave her a more natural communal touch than any of her predecessors had shown. When she married Philip Mountbatten – who became Duke of Edinburgh in 1947 (and died in April 2021 at the age of 99) – her marriage was seized as an opportunity to brighten up a national life still gripped by post-war austerity and rationing.
Elizabeth II inherited a monarchy whose political power had faded steadily since the 18th century, but whose role in the public life of the nation seemed, if possible, to have become even more important. Princes in the 20th century were expected to both perform ceremonial duties with due seriousness and light up enough to share and enjoy the tastes and interests of commoners.
The Queen’s elaborate coronation in 1953 struck a balance between the two roles. The ancient ceremony could be traced back to the monarchy’s Saxon origins, while her decision to show it on television brought it into the living rooms of ordinary people with the latest modern technology. Royal ceremonial would henceforth be democratically visible, ironically much better choreographed and more formal than ever before.
The Queen revolutionized public perception of the monarchy when, at the urging of Lord Mountbatten and his son-in-law, the television producer Lord Brabourne, she agreed to produce the 1969 BBC film Royal Family. It was a remarkably intimate portrayal of her domestic life. , seeing her at breakfast, having a barbecue at Balmoral and visiting the local shops.
The inauguration of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales the same year, another royal televised event, was followed in 1970 by the Queen’s decision during a visit to Australia and New Zealand to break with protocol and interfere directly with the crowd that had come to see her. These ‘walkabouts’ soon became a central part of any royal visit.
The pinnacle of the Queen’s popularity in mid-government came with the Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, which saw the country adorned in red, white, and blue at VE Day-style street parties. It was followed in 1981 by the huge popularity of Prince Charles’ wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral to Lady Diana Spencer.
The following decades proved many more tests. Controversy in the early 1990s over the Queen’s income tax exemption forced the Crown to change its financial arrangements so that it paid like everyone else. Gossip and scandals surrounding the younger royal family turned into divorces for Prince Andrew, Princess Anne and – most damaging of all – Prince Charles. The Queen called 1992 – the height of the scandals – her “a terrible year”.
The revelations about the misery Princess Diana endured in her marriage gave the public a much harsher, less sympathetic view of the royal family, which seemed justified when the Queen had unusually misjudged the public mood after Diana’s death in 1997. Her instinct was to follow protocol and precedent, stay with Balmoral and keep her grandchildren with her.
This seemed difficult and indifferent to an audience hungry for overt expressions of emotions that would have been unimaginable in the Queen’s younger days. “Where is our queen?” demanded The Sun, as the Daily Express called on her to “Show us you care!” insisting that she break protocol and fly the Union Jack at half-mast over Buckingham Palace. Never since the abdication had the popularity of the monarchy sunk so low.
Hot on the heels of this remarkable change in British public behavior, the Queen soon regained the initiative, addressing the nation on television and bowing her head for Diana’s funeral procession during a cleverly conceived and choreographed television service.
The extent to which she quickly gained public support was evident in the huge, if unexpected, success of her 2002 Golden Jubilee, which was heralded by the extraordinary sight of Brian May performing a guitar solo on the roof of Buckingham Palace. By the time London hosted the 2012 Olympics, she was confident enough in her position to agree to a memorable ironic cameo at the opening ceremony, when she appeared to be jumping from a helicopter in the company of a parachute. James Bond.
Queen Elizabeth held the crown over party politics, but was always fully engaged in the political world. She was a strong supporter of the Commonwealth, even when her own prime ministers had long lost faith in it. As head, she mediated disputes between member states and provided support and guidance, even to Commonwealth leaders who were vehemently opposed to her own British government.
Her prime ministers often paid tribute to her political wisdom and knowledge. These were the result of both her years of experience and her diligence in reading state papers. Harold Wilson noted that going to the weekly audience unprepared was like getting caught at school without doing your homework. It was widely believed that she found the relationship with Margaret Thatcher difficult.
The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh sometimes objected to the political use given to them by governments. In 1978, they were unluckily forced by the then Secretary of State, David Owen, to host Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife as guests at Buckingham Palace.
The Queen was able to have a very positive effect in international relations, often through the ceremonial and public confirmation of the work of her ministers. She built a rapport with a range of US presidents, most notably Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, and her successful 2011 state visit to the Republic of Ireland, astonishing her hosts by addressing them in Gaelic, remains an example of the positive impact a state visit can have.
She was even able to put aside her personal feelings about the 1979 assassination of Lord Mountbatten to give a warm welcome to former IRA commander Martin McGuinness when he took office as Deputy Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 2007.
Only very occasionally and briefly did the Queen allow her own political views to surface. During a visit to the London Stock Exchange after the 2008 financial crash, she sharply asked why no one had seen it coming.
In 2014, her carefully worded call for Scots to think carefully about their vote in the Independence Referendum was widely – and clearly rightly – interpreted as an intervention on behalf of the Union. And in the run-up to the 2021 UN COP26 conference in Glasgow, from which she had to withdraw on medical advice, she was heard expressing her annoyance at the lack of political action related to the climate change emergency.
As she approached her tenth decade, she finally began to slow down and delegate more of her official duties to other members of the royal family — even the annual wreath-laying ceremony at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, as she completed her most important ceremony in May 2022. ceremonial duty, reading the Speech from the Throne at the State Opening of Parliament, to Prince Charles.