On February 5, 1952, Elizabeth Windsor climbed a mgugu tree as a princess and the following morning came down a queen. She and Prince Philip were in Kenya en route to Australia, staying at the famous Treetops Hotel. On February 6, she was watching the sun rise from a platform in the trees as an eagle soared above them—it was thought that, at that moment, her beloved father, George VI, died in his sleep at Sandringham.
A day later the twenty-five-year-old monarch arrived in London, dressed in black, and descended the stairs of her plane to be greeted by Prime Minister Churchill, who had served as a soldier in the reign of her great-great grandmother, Victoria. And it is Victoria whom Elizabeth II will eclipse on September 9 as the United Kingdom’s longest-reigning monarch. And, of course, Australia’s longest-serving sovereign. Sixty-three years 216 days of dutiful discretion and extraordinary control. Day after day, week after week since Wednesday, February 6, 1952.
Her youth and composure prompted hopes of a new era—not Victorian but a second Elizabethan Age. Interestingly, a tree featured in the accession of Elizabeth I too. The first Elizabeth, also twenty-five, sat beneath an oak at Hatfield, and when told she was queen, replied, “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.”
As a child, when her father unexpectedly became king, it was said that Elizabeth began ardently praying for a brother. Her prayers were not answered, but still on her twenty-first birthday in South Africa she pledged: “my whole life, however long or short, will be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family”. By all accounts she has been as good as her word. Our great imperial family is, rather like the Holy Roman Empire, now neither great, imperial nor a family. But the fifty-four-nation Commonwealth—a third of the membership of the UN—survives and recognises the Queen as its head. Indeed a dozen nations, us included, have decided that, as Robert Lacey, one of her biographers put it, “a time-share monarchy is preferable to no monarchy at all”.
She has been represented by fifteen governors-general, while thirteen prime ministers have served during her reign: from Sir William McKell to Sir Peter Cosgrove; from R.G. Menzies to Tony Abbott. The choice of McKell in 1947 had been the last tussle between Buckingham Palace and The Lodge. With the exception of Sir Isaac Isaacs in 1931, the monarch had always had the last say and always preferred an eminent Briton, but Prime Minister Chifley was determined that his choice prevail (although, interestingly, Chifley had also proposed Lord Mountbatten) and George VI demurred. The King’s brother, the bluff Duke of Gloucester, and McKell’s predecessor, was appalled at this loss of sovereignty: “So I’ve wasted my bloody time then.”
Until 1965, when he proposed R.G. Casey, Menzies, who succeeded Chifley in 1949, proffered a short list of traditional British candidates to the Palace. The next three viceroys were a field marshal, Sir William Slim; a former Speaker of the House of Commons, Viscount Dunrossil; and a VC winner, Viscount De L’Isle. Even the tenth Duke of Devonshire was offered the job but his duty to Chatsworth proved too strong.
The whole country came alive in 1954 for the first visit by a reigning sovereign. It was estimated that six million of the total Australian population of nine million saw the Queen and her consort, the Duke of Edinburgh, during their tour. Seven capital cities and seventy towns in fifty-eight days. Inevitably the mayor would greet, accompany and sit beside the Queen. She confided in Patricia Mountbatten, “All these mayors are so boring. Why are they so boring?” In fairness to Their Worships, the young Queen was new to the art of making conversation with strangers and only she could initiate a dialogue. But at town after flag-bedecked town, the Queen would be met by a front line of beaming mayors and mayoresses, councillors and their consorts. Jane Connors in her fascinating Royal Visits to Australia (2015) singled out the good councillors of Katoomba, who proved the exception, electing not to be introduced so that the Queen could enjoy the beauty of the scenery. “That,” she was moved to say, “is the nicest thing I’ve heard.”
Revisionists have made much of Menzies’s Parliament House welcome, echoing Thomas Ford, “I did but see her passing by, And yet I love her till I die”—the fulsome courtier. And yet the Leader of the Opposition, that old class-warrior Arthur Calwell, expressed similar sentiments at the same reception. They were simply reflecting the national mood. As the historian Sir Charles Petrie wrote of the Queen, “For the first few years of her reign, she was the subject of adulation unparalleled since the days of Louis XIV.” Prince Philip recalled:
The level of adulation, you wouldn’t believe it. It could have been corroding. It would have been very easy to play to the gallery, but I took a conscious decision not to do that. Safer not to be too popular. You can’t fall too far.
Here, perhaps, is the key to the longevity of their marriage and the success of the Queen’s reign.
The Queen would make, has made, fifteen further visits; the latest (and perhaps the last) in 2011. Visits to Australia continued with mother, sister, uncle, aunts, cousins, children and grandchildren being greeted—always politely and with varying degrees of enthusiasm but in the wake of every visit, especially from the Queen, the popularity of the monarch and support for the status quo rose. More significantly, her heir, Charles, his heir, William, and his heir, George—the next three generations—have also come to meet their future subjects. The perennial—but unanswerable—question is, “How many more generations of the House of Windsor will carry the title Sovereign of Australia?”
An early test came with Britain’s entry into Europe. In July 1961 Harold Macmillan announced Britain’s intention to apply to enter the Common Market. A few weeks earlier the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, Duncan Sandys (until 1960 he had also been Churchill’s son-in-law), flew in to Canberra to reassure the Menzies ministry in advance that this move would not affect the Commonwealth or weaken Australian ties. Menzies and three future prime ministers, Holt, McEwen and McMahon, were not at all reassured. As Michael Davie observed in his witty, anecdotal Anglo-Australian Attitudes (2001), although Britain did not enter Europe until 1973, it was this moment in 1961 when pro-British Australian ministers could hear “the old links snapping”. It is not clear what exactly the Head of the Commonwealth thought of this development—torn as she must have been by opposing policies of her ministers at home and those in her other realms.
Another blow came a decade later as British immigration laws tightened for members of the “Old Commonwealth”. Ian Hancock describes in his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography of the New South Wales Agent-General Sir Jock Pagan:
Returning from a visit to Australia in 1971, he planted himself between the “UK Passports only” and “Non-British passports” immigration channels at Heathrow airport. He pointed out that neither label applied to his passport, which described him as an Australian citizen and a British subject. A senior official arranged for him to pass through a gate halfway between the two channels.
But on November 11, 1975, came the link’s biggest test—Sir John Kerr’s dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Again the monarchy survived, chiefly because the Queen was not directly engaged by the main players and was not asked to take a view, ensuring her continued popularity in Australia and Whitlam’s abiding admiration. Kerr later claimed in his memoirs that he had told the Queen the reason he did not advise her was, “Governor-Generals are expendable. The Queen is not.” In any case, it added momentum to the push for a republic. The Whitlam government had already begun to use “Advance Australia Fair” as the national anthem, and inaugurated the Order of Australia. With all the precision of a silk, Whitlam had even suggested that “The Second” should be deleted from the Queen’s royal title as Australia had never had Elizabeth I as its sovereign. This was firmly quashed.
The role of governor-general had begun to evolve. While the Queen remained Sovereign of Australia, the governor-general effectively became head of state. In fact the referendum, initially called for by Prime Minister Keating and held in 1999, turned in part on this. Monarchists were able to argue that the real head of state was not the British monarch but the Australian governor-general, and one appointed, as with presidents in a number of modern republics, by the government of the day. This issue worked in another way to defeat the republicans. The alternative—that, in place of the Queen and the governor-general, two-thirds of the federal Parliament could elect a president—was anathema to those who felt that all Australians should have a say in the election of their head of state.
Buckingham Palace’s official reaction was to say, “For some while it has been clear that many Australians wanted constitutional change. Much of the debate has been what that change should be.” Robert Lacey claims that Prince Philip’s immediate response to the vote was, “What’s the matter with these people? Can’t they see what’s good for them?” In Ottawa in 1969, as Pierre Trudeau chipped away at Canada’s royal connections, Philip had been equally blunt:
I think it’s a complete misconception to imagine that the Monarchy exists in the interests of the Monarch—it doesn’t. It exists in the interests of the people: in a sense—we don’t come here for our health, so to speak. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves … I think that the important thing about it is that if, at any stage, people feel that it has no further part to play, then for goodness sake let’s end the thing on amicable terms without having a row about it.
The Queen would echo, though less brusquely, her husband’s views in Australia in 2000 (having avoided visiting for eight years while the debate took place): “I have always made it clear that the future of the monarchy in Australia is an issue for you, the Australian people, and you alone to decide by democratic and constitutional means. It should not be otherwise.” And so the link endures.
The Queen has not yet passed the reins to her eldest son. Abdication is clearly not an option. It was said of Queen Victoria and her heir (eventually Edward VII), “The Queen continues to reign and reign and won’t let the son shine.” It might be said of her great-great granddaughter, Elizabeth, “The Queen continues to shine and shine and won’t let the son reign.”
But the Prince of Wales has diligently fashioned a role for himself. His decas horribilis behind him and his increasingly popular second wife by his side, he is determined to be a Good King. Allowing him a stint as governor-general, as Malcolm Fraser had intended, would have made for an interesting experiment; but Bob Hawke, who defeated Fraser in 1983, rejected it as a “double dose” of the monarchy. Even when the so-called “Black Spider Memos”, the Prince’s annotated letters to ministers and other politicians, were released this year, they revealed nothing self-serving or sinister. Even the Guardian, which had fought so long and hard for their publication, noted, “The black spiders are harmless creatures compared with the multimillion-pound tarantulas of big-time political pressure, uncharted and undisclosed.” It is true, his mother has refrained from the luxury of having opinions and repressed a passion for making a difference; but then, for sixty-three years she has had a weekly opportunity in her meeting with her (British) prime minister—with no witnesses and no need for memos.
But what of the woman behind the tiara? A.N. Wilson claims in his book After the Victorians (2005) that the Queen is unknowable. He considers the closest and most vivid portrait among a score of biographies is contained in The Little Princesses (1950) by their nanny of fourteen years, Marion Crawford. She wrote of ten-year-old Lilibet:
self-contained and obsessively neat, getting up in the middle of the night to tidy her shoes—and the piety and sense of duty which would not have been out of place in a medieval or seventeenth-century monarch … [and] not a single instance of the child allowing her guard to drop. She is always royal.
During an air-raid at Windsor Castle, with the governor and officials anxiously waiting in the shelter for their charges to join them, Lilibet calmly tells her nanny through the bedroom door, “We’re dressing, Crawfie. We must dress.” As Wilson quips, “Louis Quatorze would have approved.”
For Elizabeth II, duty has always been at the expense of emotion. To show emotion was to expose her and compromise her role, even in private. A recurring vignette in accounts of her life is the story of a courtier friend receiving a short, rather formal letter from her on the death of a family member, yet the death of a dog provokes a four-page hand-written letter of real sympathy and feeling.
A droll sense of humour—a hint of her mother’s wit—hides behind an occasionally glum visage. At a garden party a young guest’s mobile phone began to ring as she was speaking with the Queen. The girl was in an agony of embarrassment unrelieved by the Queen saying, “You’d better answer that. It might be someone important.” Her gift as a mimic is also unexpected. She could do a brilliant Bob Hawke and her Boris Yeltsin was superb. And how awesome her Julia Gillard must have been.
These glimpses of the private Elizabeth are a revelation, but the public one remains a constant focus. The coolness, sagacity and restraint of Elizabeth II have been matched by her constancy and diligence—day in and day out, for (come September 9) 23,227 days—a model monarch. We shall not see her passing by these shores again but in November, sixty-one years after her first tour of Australia, she is to venture to Malta for a meeting of her beloved Commonwealth—true to her twenty-first-birthday pledge to “our great imperial family”.
Mark McGinness is working in Dubai.