New Britain, same as the old one: the legacy of the second Elizabethan era

<span>Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA</span>
Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA

Until the Lord Chamberlain lost his power to censor the theatre in 1968, the two most surefire parts in the repertory were held to be Hamlet and Hedda Gabler. However unsuited or inadequate the actor, however weak the production, it was almost impossible for anyone to appear in the title roles without achieving lift-off. You couldn’t fail. The audience moved towards your dilemmas, almost unbidden. But since impersonations of living royalty were first permitted, and with performers as varied as Pam Ferris, Prunella Scales, Diana Quick and Claire Foy all enjoying successive triumphs, actors now agree that playing the part of Queen Elizabeth II has become the most infallible gig of the lot.

It’s not hard to see why. There is nothing more satisfying than playing a part where the audience does nine-tenths of the work for you. It was partly in the character, and partly in the function awarded to Elizabeth Windsor that, from adolescence onwards, she chose to express herself as little as possible. Whereas we have an all-too-clear idea of exactly who Boris Johnson is, and, for that matter, of who Tony Blair is, the Queen spent more than 70 years perfecting her technique of hiding her thoughts. In dramatic narrative, nothing is more powerful than the withholding of information. It’s only inexperienced performers who ask for more words. As film-maker Alexander Mackendrick observed, a long speech explaining motivation will not make the audience feel closer to a character. Rather, it will make them feel that the character is alarmingly prone to self-pity – and will drive them away.

Much of the Queen’s authority rested on her remaining opaque

Of all the mistakes a monarch, or indeed a screenwriter, can make, explaining yourself is the worst of the lot. Much of the Queen’s authority rested on her remaining opaque. Her subjects were able to insist they detected in her whatever they chose. In the years after her accession, a popular comparison was drawn with Queen Elizabeth I. The word Elizabethan was reminted to suggest everything that was unfussy, dynamic and forward-looking. The keynote of the new Elizabethan age was not the mock-Victorian flummery of the coronation, with its archaic red velvet melodrama and its wilful confusion of spirituality and monarchy. The new era was more convincingly symbolised by the creation of towns such as Milton Keynes and by concrete adventures such as the early motorways and the South Bank in London. Most of all, it was expected that the arts of poetry, music and dance would flourish afresh in Corbusier-influenced town centres, in celebration of a benign and enlightened young woman. The war was over. A new Queen implied a new start. At my own school in the 1960s, the sixth-form literary society had been very deliberately named the Elizabethans to suggest that a second age of Marlowe, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson was just around the corner.

Looking back, it may seem odd that such densely cultural aspirations were laid on the head of a figure whose most passionate feelings appeared to be for horses and dogs. But it was typical of her versatility as an ambiguous emblem defined by silence that she could serve as progressive and reactionary at almost the same moment. Tabloid accounts of the Queen’s reign conventionally suggest that the events surrounding Diana, Princess of Wales in the 1990s represented the gravest threat to the Queen’s popularity and survival. Nothing could be further from the truth. As Julian Barnes noted, in much the shrewdest contemporary reading of Diana’s funeral in 1997, the battle between Diana’s supposed feeling for everyday suffering and the royal household’s supposed indifference to it served in the end to reinforce the power of the monarchy, not to undermine it. Diana was dead. The family lived on. As Barnes said, Diana “didn’t want to close the family firm, merely install new management”.

Prince Charles had committed the emotional crime – not unique to monarchs – of marrying someone whom he didn’t love. But it was a crime of the heart, not of the realm. The Queen, wrongfooted for no more than a few days, otherwise sailed serenely above.

In fact, royalty had passed through much choppier water some time before. In advertising, nothing is more powerful than the word “new”. But nothing is more dangerous than the slogan “time for a change”. By the mid-1970s, after more than 20 years of being a new Elizabethan, the Queen found herself swept up in widespread assumptions that our characteristic institutions were all exhausted. Reform was impossible. Only eradication would work.

Paradoxically, it was Margaret Thatcher’s belief in the free market that saved the palace

Anyone who hoped to see Britain advance its imperfect democracy into something fairer and more idealistic had four principal targets. We wanted to see nuclear weapons abolished. We wanted to see the House of Lords abolished. We wanted to see private education abolished. And, as a matter of urgency, we wanted the monarchy abolished. Until the day dawned when we could climb out of cots as citizens rather than subjects, we would never be able to take charge of our own affairs.

Paradoxically, it was Margaret Thatcher’s belief in the free market that saved the palace. Conservative politics have always been an inelegant and often bitter fight between capitalism and nationalism. When, at the beginning of the 1980s, Thatcher made it clear that all British interests were to be put up for sale, regardless of national consequence, she was smart enough to realise that such a merciless economic policy might be felt to reduce us to just one more anonymous stall in a global market. How could Britain be special if nothing mattered except competition and efficiency? What sort of patriotic regiment would give up their life for international finance? Suddenly Malvern water, James Bond and the memory of the Beatles were among signifiers frantically deployed to suggest that although Britain was willing to flog off all its businesses, its resources and its domestic industries at knock-down prices to any old foreign buyer, nevertheless it could still retain a distinctive identity. And what could make us more distinctive than a royal family that disdained to dwindle into the you-and-me bicycling version that ruled on the continent, but which persevered, tourist-friendly, in pomp and in ceremony, with wielding the old imperial toolkit?

The Queen had lucked in. And her luck lasted. As politics in the UK over the next 30 years became more squalid and more nakedly corrupt, supporters of the monarchy were able to make a comparison that worked 100% in the Queen’s favour. She was clean. Politicians weren’t. In the last decade in particular, the sullen fatalism of the electorate has shrunk Britain into what is in effect a one-party state. The lawless wangling of Covid contracts by meritless chums of government ministers, or the tearing up of international treaties that had been personally negotiated by a prime minister in evident bad faith, were typical of myriad rip-roaring scandals that no longer did damage on anything like the scale they deserved. To the public, such practices were unremarkable. It became an accepted fact of life, discounted in advance: the political class was bent, and always waiting to pass through the door to its own private enrichment. How refreshing the Queen came to appear with her unfamiliar notions of duty, service and integrity.

In truth, the real story was a little more complicated. The royal reluctance to pay tax was never its most attractive feature. Thatcher had wanted us to emulate an American-style society, in which wealth would be generated not by land but by income. Unsnobbish herself, Thatcher was not impressed by grand names and their dynastic priorities. But although American ruthlessness was successfully grafted on to the UK in the 80s, US-style philanthropy never took hold. Implicit in the American ambition of making a fortune in your own lifetime was the expectation that you would then step forward to give something back.

Queen Elizabeth II, second left, with the West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, left, the US president Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher
Queen Elizabeth II, second left, with the West German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, left, the US president Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Photograph: AP

But in this respect the Queen was happy to set her people a miserable example. Elizabeth may have been generous with her time, but as an individual she was purse-proud. Never once from her own private pocket, as far as we can tell, did she endow a great hospital, or a great place of learning, or a great scientific project. As practical legacy, she wanted to be known only for the longstanding aristocratic achievement of handing on to her children quite as much as, if not more than, she inherited herself.

People who know China say you can understand nothing that happens there until you realise that the Chinese Communist party exists for no other purpose but to perpetuate the Chinese Communist party. The same is true of the British monarchy. When their interests clash with the country’s, there is no question about which comes first. After all, the Queen, like her eldest son, did devoutly believe she was appointed by God. That’s why by far the most successful fictional portrait of her was in Sue Townsend’s play The Queen and I, where circumstances had rendered her penniless and trying to survive on social security on a council estate. The contrast between Her Majesty’s high calling and her low status was hilarious.

When Elizabeth wept at the hopeless difficulty of filling in her council tax form, Townsend pulled off the impressive task of making the monarchy ridiculous and the Queen sympathetic. The audience responded because they were watching something which chimed with what they believed already. Here was a markedly nice woman trapped in a markedly stupid system.

If the Queen’s affect was deliberately bland, she did manage to intimate two personal enthusiasms, beyond the continuation of the institution she led, and its retention of dominion over four territories rather than three. Whether for nostalgic or for progressively racial reasons, she always conveyed an enthusiasm for the Commonwealth that appeared heartfelt. She was comfortable among its representatives. In this, she was greatly lucky, again, in the friendship and admiration of Nelson Mandela, whose warmth towards her was unmistakeable and genuine. To be validated, as she so often was, by the affection of someone whose exemplary life experience was obviously so different from her own gave her a welcome plausibility in cultures that might otherwise have readily dismissed her. And her suggestions, voiced more fiercely by her eldest son and her husband but later approved by her, that the environment would be one of the greatest concerns of the 21st century put her in another position that became increasingly familiar – of being at one with the public and, at the same time, way in advance of the political and media class.

Now, of course, we will never know anything for certain. The Queen’s secrets have died with her, and any firm interpretation of her convictions can be dismissed as yet another expression of her genius for meaning different things to different people. Born a couple of years after the second world war, I was also lucky. I was brought up at exactly the time when a formative generation of social historians and cultural critics demonstrated to its fusty predecessors that the history of a country could not be told through the exploits of its kings and queens, but far more eloquently through the experiences of their less privileged subjects. Nothing the Queen did in my lifetime had much effect on the nation’s fortunes, nor on the fundamental changes in its character. The ace up her sleeve was always the question: “And who would you have as president?” Nobody believed Rupert Murdoch when one of his papers splashed an invented story about the Queen being overheard talking in favour of Britain leaving the EU. But the Brexit fantasy, with all its attendant lies, vainglory and ultimate impoverishment, was undoubtedly shored up by the impression that the singularity of our monarchy was one of the things that had made us determined to go back 50 years to our previous ramshackle arrangements.

The ace up her sleeve was always the question: ‘And who would you have as president?’

How do we draw up a balance sheet? Is it even appropriate? You can’t blame the sovereign for the failings of her people. In the debit column, there’s no question that the monarchy functioned, as it had over previous generations, as a drag on essential change. None of the four radical ambitions of the postwar period were achieved. The Queen did little to confront or overturn Britain’s cynically misleading impression of stately timelessness. The lasting improvements in sexual and social tolerance that will give her years their defining flavour were finally nothing to do with her. In the credit column, she was liked and admired as an individual, who was in love with an exceptionally interesting man, and who had children, at least one of whom was thankfully a whole lot worse than any of our own.

In 1066 and All That, no question, Elizabeth would be accounted a good queen. But did she serve to create a good country? That, I’m afraid, would be too much to ask.