- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2002

Even on these shores, Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee this year has been hard to ignore. Although there is obviously more interest and even more emotion invested in this event in the United Kingdom and throughout much of the Commonwealth than in the United States, we have been treated nonetheless to a blitz of television coverage ranging all the way from long documentaries to snippets on local news.
Print journalism has given the occasion less coverage, but still perhaps more than diehard republicans might think it merits. And the book publishing industry, knowing that there is in all seasons a buck to be made from the besotted followers of British royalty in the U.S. market, recognizes an extra good opportunity when it sees one.
Three of the books to appear this year William Shawcross,' "Queen and Country," Robert Lacey's, "Monarch" and Ronald Allison's "The Queen" bear more than a passing resemblance to television programs, Mr. Shawcross' book actually being a companion volume to one. They are for the most part spun from the same cloth, the same images that we recognize. The young woman dressed in mourning descending the steps of the plane at London Airport the day after her father's death in February of 1952. The actual moment when she was crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Informal shots of the young matron and her family at the barbecue or the horse race. Endless official visits to the Commonwealth and almost every other nation on earth.
The same anecdotes appear just as inevitably as certain events and personalities pop up. It was only a few years into Elizabeth's reign when Malcolm Muggeridge dubbed the royal family a "soap opera" he hadn't seen nuthin' yet. As the reign which began so solemnly degenerated by the 1990s into dueling adulteries, shameful spectacles, and shaming sensationalism (admittedly, involving her family rather than the queen herself), the story has become every bit as tawdry and even as improbable as the hokiest television serial.
There are problems with books such as these. Not the least is the lack of anything resembling verifiable sources. Except for rare forays deliberate or otherwise by the Prince and the late Princess of Wales, the principal figures in the drama do not speak, either for attribution or on what journalists call background. Various courtiers, friends, distant relations, and hangers-on do speak in both modes but nothing said is really verifiable. The result is an improbable mixture of the predictable and the contradictory.
And then there is the whole question of for whom these books are written. A visitor from another planet might find any of them enlightening, particularly because of the genealogical tables and chronological charts contained in them, but the books tend to be targeted at people already fascinated by the subject. Such aficionados of royalty may well read all these books, and it seems that for many of them, what is really desired is the mixture as before, and very nice and slightly piquant it is.
Still, differences of substance and of style must needs creep in. Mr. Lacey, known for the popular style that has graced many bestsellers, delivers in many ways the best read: lively, well-written, and filled with juicy, if unfalsifiable, judgements and anecdotes. Mr. Allison, once Queen Elizabeth's press secretary, writes a solid, well told account, packed with useful facts but certainly giving away little of a confidential nature.
Mr. Shawcross, once a dedicated iconoclast in his jeremiad against Henry Kissinger, now reveals himself to be the most Establishmentarian of all these writers. His book fairly reeks of the court and courtiers and he is almost obsequious in his attitude towards a sovereign and a reign which, in his opinion, should be "celebrated, honoured, and cherished."
In many ways, it is the Deborah and Gerald Strober's "Monarchy: An Oral History of Elizabeth II" which does the best job of all: Its pointillist portrait is made up of hundreds of firsthand testimonials from a wide variety of individuals, who speak on the record about Elizabeth and her family. In it, the picture the authors provide is not only more honest and more detailed, but is also refreshingly reflective of people outside the tight circle whose views are customarily aired in such books.
The trio of biographies Hugo Vickers of Prince Philip's mother, "Alice"; Caroline Graham's "Camilla," of Camilla Parker-Bowles, the Prince of Wales's mistress; and Nicholas Davies' "William" of Charles' son offer unusual perspectives on royal or near-royal existences. "Alice" is a fascinating account of a life divided between the courts of Europe on the one hand and penury, marital strife, religious mania, and dedicated service on the other.
The book even details a little known incident in which Alice saved a Jewish family in Nazi-occupied Greece, an act which has earned her a place as a Righteous Gentile at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. The biographies of Mrs. Parker-Bowles and of Prince William provide a wealth of information on two characters who seem likely to have a determinative influence on the future of the British monarchy. Each book is weakened by internal contradictions and by too much unsubstantiated speculation, but both are nonetheless vivid portraits of people whom the world will want to know more and more about in the years ahead.
Looking at Queen Elizabeth's reign, it is hard not to be struck by her lack of initiative, of courage, or indeed of any kind of forcefulness. Her refusal to support her sister's love-marriage to a Battle of Britain war hero simply because he was the innocent party in a divorce case set the tone early on. At every turn she was unwilling to modernize the monarchy, although sometimes she could be pushed into doing so.
But her instinct was generally to balk at change. Sometimes it was small things, like refusing the pleas of her environmentalist husband and eldest son to abandon the custom cruel to soldier and bear alike of outfitting her guardsmen in uncomfortable bearskin helmets. Having vision is not something she can be accused of.
Even her much-vaunted embrace of her role as Head of the Commonwealth has had an unfortunate side, seldom if ever remarked by royal watchers. Much is made of her "special relationship" with such Commonwealth leaders as Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda, almost universally lauded in these books and usually contrasted with their (and her) supposedly shaky relations with Margaret Thatcher.
It does not ever seem to have occurred to anyone that wrapping such leaders of one-party dictatorships in the mantle of her respectability did not do any favor to their people who were being so ill-governed. Much is made of her lack of racial prejudice, certainly a refreshing change from her recent predecessors, but it seems to me she is guilty of a double standard: Would she be so warm to an undemocratically elected leader in say, Canada, or Australia?
Although she has visited almost every nation on earth in the last 50 years, the queen has never graced the state of Israel with her presence, despite the fact that she has received a state visit from Israel's president, which protocol demands she should return. And Yehuda Avner, Israel's ambassador to the Court of St. James in the 1980s, is quoted in "The Monarchy: An Oral Biography" as saying, "There were in the 1950s initial feelers put out for Israel to become a member of the Commonwealth, but it didn't happen. Among other reasons, not only political, it was made clear in the 1980s that while Mr. Shamir was still prime minister, these things couldn't happen."
If Yitzhak Shamir's unacceptability was because he had been a terrorist, what of the countless heads of Commonwealth countries who had in their time engaged in terrorist acts against Britain? Mr. Shamir was warmly received by Margaret Thatcher during his time in office, but Queen Elizabeth seemed to prefer military dictators and heads of one-party autocracies to this man democratically elected by his people. Surely something is wrong with this picture.
Whenever I see clips of Queen Elizabeth reciting her Coronation Oath, I am struck by her vow to govern the peoples of her various dominions according to their various laws and customs. In the case of the Union of South Africa, this involved much of the dreadful apparatus of apartheid actually being enacted into law in her name. Yet nowhere in these books nor in any other discussions of her that I know of is this point ever made.
It might well be argued that she of all people owed South Africa an apology when she paid her state visit there in 1995. No such statement was forthcoming, but what is more remarkable is that the subject never came up. All you get in these books from Nelson Mandela is a lot of breathy, star-struck generalities about the queen and how she was believed not to agree with Mrs. Thatcher's opposition to sanctions against the apartheid regime. An excellent example of how unsubstantiated speculation and wishful thinking edge out hard facts in the Queen Elizabeth story.
On a personal note, as one who was born a subject of her father and who was for many years a loyal and admiring one of Queen Elizabeth, but who is now a devoted citizen of this great republic, I must admit to feeling a certain distaste for the monarchical principal, even when constitutional. While some of this may be the natural enthusiasm of a convert to republicanism, it has also been fed by a definite disappointment with the way this monarch has conducted herself, to say nothing of the revolting spectacle created by her family. So, at best, borrowing E.M. Forster's phrase about democracy, two cheers for Queen Elizabeth II.
To convince one of the desirability let alone, the necessity of the British monarchy in the 21st century, this queen would have needed to make far more of her decades on the throne. Dynamism, imagination, compassion, above all being a positive force, might or, to be fair, might not have done the job, but dutifulness, a lack of any obviously bad qualities, and mere longevity have sadly not been enough. Victims of Nazi bombing could justly hail her father as a good king, for George VI managed to encapsulate the spirit of a trying and challenging time. Appreciation of the adequacy of Elizabeth II is a pretty watery sentiment, but it is perhaps all that she has justly earned for herself.

Martin Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.


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