Britain’s best-Known Brand
London: Aurum Press, 2015.
Hardback. 358 pp. ISBN 978-1781313565. £20.00
Reviewed by Hugh Clout
University College London
Journalist and broadcaster Stephen Bates draws on his long experience with a variety of newspapers and broadcasting stations to present an even-handed account of the condition of the British royal family. His career has brought him into direct contact with many of ‘the royals’, as he covered routine events, occasions of state, and royal visits overseas, notably during the dozen years that he was royal correspondent on the Guardian, a newspaper that has something of a ‘republican stance’ . Bates has shared discussions with fellow royal journalists and has enjoyed interviews with senior members of the royal household. The timing of his book is ideal, since on 9th September 2015 Queen Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in the history of Britain, beating the previous record held by Queen Victoria.
The British monarchy has successfully weathered many storms and controversies, with the Queen being widely regarded as the nation’s favourite grandmother. Her subjects marvel at the length of her reign and the seriousness with which she attends to regal duties, including scrutinising official papers, meeting with ministers, completing a punishing regime of royal visits, receiving foreign heads of state, and remaining friendly and benign on all occasions. She is the head of the Church of England and here ‘there is a paradox: although the English do not go to church much, they seem to appreciate the royal association with it. It does neither party any harm and may indeed enhance both’ . To varying degree, all members of the royal family are involved with charitable activities, with some hitting the headlines, but others, such as Princess Anne, shouldering a large amount of this kind of work without earning much attention from the press. Use of regular train services, air flights or fast chauffeur-driven cars on such occasions meets with public approval, but expensive helicopter rides taken by some members of the royal family, when alternative means of travel are available, attract criticism from the public and journalists alike.
The year 2015 is an appropriate moment for stocktaking, for looking back at the varying fortunes of the royalty, and glimpsing forward to the unknown. Inevitably, the greater part of Royalty Inc. reviews the life of Elizabeth II and glances further back as the focus of discussion requires. For example, the sixteen photographs included in the book range from depicting Queen Victoria in 1857 to Prince George in December 2014. The dozen chapters are not organised chronologically or even by conventional themes. Rather, they are introduced by quotations, of which a sample conveys the flavour of this approach. ‘I have to be seen to be believed’, is said to be the Queen’s private motto. The private secretary to George V declared that the monarch’s role involved ‘An entire effacement of self’. As head of the Church of England, the Queen’s position is in ‘A sphere beyond politics’, according to the Bishop of London. The Duke of Edinburgh remarked, ‘You have mosquitoes, I have the press’, during a visit to the West Indies. Prince Charles once told a television interviewer, ‘I think we are a soap opera’; and with notable sagacity his father, Prince Philip remarked: ‘Safer not to be too popular. You can’t fall too far’.
Looking to the future, Prince William and Prince Harry have done a great deal to restore public interest in and support for the royal family: William by marrying a commoner, producing photogenic offspring, and displaying the measure of seriousness desirable in a future king; Harry by simply displaying ‘the common touch’ at home and abroad, and thereby being his mother’s son. The world of 2015 is very different from that of 1952 when Elizabeth II ascended the throne; future monarchs will have to take change very much in their stride. Given his mother’s longevity and the pattern of male mortality, it is likely that the reign of the future Charles III will be relatively brief.
In producing this balanced but ultimately generous account of the royal family, that does not fight shy of royal finances or letters sent by the Prince of Wales to ministers and public officials, Stephen Bates has combined bibliographic scrutiny (a hundred books are listed) with personal interviews and experience. It is particularly interesting to learn who is thanked for their opinions and to acknowledge that other informants spoke only off the record. Similarly, the brief notes for each chapter elucidate the various introductory quotations and the context in which they were uttered, as well as the main literary and oral sources employed by the author. Without doubt, Royalty Inc. will appeal to readers seeking a readable account, that is critical in places but offers a balanced and easy-to-digest appraisal.
Cercles © 2015
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