Queen of Our Times: The Life of Queen Elizabeth II by Robert Hardman

Like Spike Milligan’s character Mrs Ethel Shroake, who after the end of the Third World War was the closest person left in line to the throne, I always thought I’d make a very good Queen.

I’d fully appreciate the castles and pageantry, the frocks, jewels and banquets. How divine not to have to queue at airports, do my own packing or do the washing-up. Free first-class travel, the best seats in the theater, all guaranteed. A luxurious existence of carriage processions and balcony appearances.

Having studied Robert Hardman’s closely observed book, however, I have changed my mind. Even the most ardent royalist will now start thinking about republicanism — because how can we allow a system that amounts to cruelty and abuse to continue?

Queen Elizabeth II departs Buckingham Palace for the State Opening of Parliament, 2009.

During the Second World War, Princess Margaret looked at the barbed wire cocooning Windsor and said it “wouldn’t have kept anybody out, but it kept us in”. Royalty is held in a cage, monitored and scrutinized every moment, with no freedom of speech or movement. “You know exactly what you are going to be doing two months hence,” the Queen has said regarding her deadening routines. Most people, she added, don’t “live in this sort of life”.

Had it not been for the louche, playboy behavior of Uncle David, which precipitated the abdication crisis in 1936, the Queen might not have been living this sort of life in captivity either.

Her father, George VI, was “the King who never wanted to be King”, and the entire business was done under sufferance — including everyone having to move home. It took ten months for the lorries to shift Queen Mary’s junk from Buckingham Palace to Marlborough House, and when she went to Badminton during the war she required 63 staff. In the event of a Nazi invasion, Lilibet, who since 1942 had been a colonel in the Grenadier Guards, and Princess Margaret were to be hidden at Madresfield Court, Worcestershire, the setting for Brideshead Revisited. The crown jewels were concealed in Bath Oliver biscuit tins.

Even the most ardent royalist will now start thinking about republicanism — because how can we allow a system that amounts to cruelty and abuse to continue?

The King’s terminal lung cancer was euphemistically called a “catarrhal inflammation” and Princess Elizabeth ascended the throne seven decades ago when she was up a tree in Kenya watching waterbucks fight.

As a child, Hardman writes, “Elizabeth was dutiful, reserved, reluctant to be the centre of attention, reticent with emotions and opinions”, and all these things she has remained, her imperturbability coming in very handy when in 1952 the first document requiring her signature “concerned an army buggery case”.

What’s shockingly clear from Hardman’s account is that the Queen is forever being poked and prodded by her private secretaries and ministers.

The future queen, fourth from left, and her sister, Margaret, far right, visit the zoo in Regents Park, 1938.

It was Sir Alan Lascelles, her first private secretary, for example, “a terrifying man … that glare and those beetling eyebrows”, aided by Churchill, who forbade Her Majesty to call the family Mountbatten, after her husband, and decreed that she must retain the name Windsor. This stipulation reduced her to tears and was seen as a snub to Prince Philip; the officials of the royal household were suspicious of Philip’s German ancestry, noting that all his surviving sisters had been married to high-ranking German officers.

Philip, a complex and ingenious man who had opinions about exhaust pipes, invented a hand-driven boot-scrubbing machine and was a fan of the Corby trouser press, always chafed at his ill-defined role, which offended his male pride.

Another disruption, when he became the Queen’s consort, was that the couple had to vacate Clarence House, which had recently been decorated to his specifications, only going $78,000 over budget. One of the fixtures was a washing machine, given in 1947 as a wedding present by the people of Leamington Spa.

Not that the Queen and Prince Philip were home much since the government of the day kept dispatching them abroad on state visits, particularly when there were in the offing deals regarding hydroelectric dams or military aircraft. “Once again, the Foreign Office had used the Queen to charm a difficult despot,” Hardman says of a trip to Morocco. It was “a strategic move by the British government” to parade the monarch, “put out more flags”, dish out honors and sail the royal yacht around Australia and New Zealand and other Commonwealth outposts when back at home Edward Heath was planning to join the Common Market.

When in residence at Buckingham Palace, the Queen had no say in the choice of houseguest and was compelled to extend hospitality to Emperor Hirohito, Idi Amin and Nicolae Ceausescu, who was worried about being poisoned.

Mikhail Gorbachev was treated to a special exhibition of “Russian-related treasures from the Royal Collection” and “to this day, the Queen still uses the silver samovar which Yeltsin gave her”, although maybe in the light of recent events it is in the skip. Incidentally, in the event of nuclear war, the monarch was to hide on board a ship in a Scottish loch in the company of the home secretary — Roy Jenkins when this plan was drawn up. Does this mean she’ll meet her maker holding hands with Priti Patel?

Tony Benn suggested that official dinners be held in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Post Office Tower, the Queen remaining in the stationary section at the center with the guests whizzing past her every few minutes.

The Queen takes a drive with two of her children, Princess Anne and Prince Charles, 1950s.

In addition to the travel and receptions, another dire task is reading out speeches of unadulterated gibberish. For the state opening of parliament, Tony Blair got Her Majesty to mouth New Labour platitudes about how “high and stable levels of economic growth are to be achieved by ensuring opportunity for all”. In Cardiff she had to say: “I am confident that this National Assembly will be a vigorous, democratic workshop.” Believe me, that sounds no better in Welsh. In Germany the Queen was expected to look interested at a conference about “new insights into biology and medicine with the use of magnets”.

It would drive most of us round the bend. The demands of the Queen’s position, when summed up, are almost otherworldly. According to a former adviser, “she needed to remain visible, but at the same time to absent herself” as if coming and going through a magic mirror. Who can pull that off outside science fiction? Which is fair enough in its way since there is something about the principles of hereditary monarchy that runs counter to reason.

The Queen “needed to remain visible, but at the same time to absent herself” as if coming and going through a magic mirror. Who can pull that off outside science fiction?

Rather robotically, Her Majesty “has very good shock-absorbers when things go wrong”, we are told by her former press secretary Charles Anson, “and she doesn’t make a hoo-ha when it’s a great success”. She hates overfamiliarity and many ordinary mortals whom she has met have been on the receiving end of a frosty glare. “There’s a withering look … and it looks you up and down and it was terrifying when it first happened to me,” says one very senior adviser.

The best she allows herself in terms of an actual human response is to raise an eyebrow and ask: “Are you sure?” The royal eyebrows must have twitched Groucho Marx-style when over a slice of Dundee cake at Balmoral Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson required her to prorogue parliament during the Brexit caper. The Queen was therefore made party to an unlawful act. The constitutional historian Peter Hennessy says: “She should never have been put in this position. It was a disgrace.” Quite.

For the most part Hardman, a columnist for the Daily Mail, covers the same ground as the Netflix series The Crown — Princess Margaret and Group Captain Townsend, the murder of Mountbatten, weddings, divorces, Mrs Thatcher — and has fun pointing out its anomalies and fabrications. The Duke of Gloucester pops up years after he had died and Martin Charteris is private secretary a decade after he had retired.

The Queen rides on the grounds of Windsor Castle, 2006.

However, Netflix is as nothing compared with the French press, which during the first 15 years of the Queen’s reign carried 63 reports that she was about to abdicate and 73 articles announcing that she and Prince Philip had separated.

I relished many of Hardman’s incidental details: that the Queen’s makeup for the coronation was applied by Oscar Wilde’s daughter-in-law; she first entered a pub, the Pied Piper in Stevenage, in 1954; her favorite section of the armed forces is the Army School of Bagpipe Music; and when she visited Dublin in 2011 there were 10,000 police and troops on undercover duty.

Hardman is also fine on incidental royalty: Princess Margaret made “no attempt to conceal her expensive, extravagant irrelevance” and her honeymoon with Tony Snowdon in 1960 cost the taxpayer $168,000; Prince Andrew is “a teetotal non-smoker” with “few inner doubts”; and the Sussexes were quickly renowned for their “sourness and naivety” by Buckingham Palace officials.

After Diana’s death, 60 million flowers weighing 15 tons were left outside Kensington Palace. Boris Johnson, then only a journalist, likened her to Eva Perón. “The princess is a symbol for every woman who has ever felt wronged by a man … the downtrodden, the lame,” he wrote. “Like Evita, whom she is coming in death to resemble, she appeals to Britain’s equivalent of the descamisados, the shirtless ones.”

As we learn in Queen of Our Times, the Queen comes from before our times. In 1952, when she ascended the throne, “there was still wartime rationing on tea, sugar, butter, cooking fat and sweets, but no motorways, computers, supermarkets or frozen foods … Everest had not been climbed and Tony Blair had not yet been born.”

In 1955 Her Majesty sent 395 telegrams to centenarians. By 2020, the number had risen to 16,254, though with luck coronavirus will have started to thin these ranks somewhat, which will save on postage.

Roger Lewis is a critic and the author of Seasonal Suicide Notes and What Am I Still Doing Here?