This week’s book review is of Our Queen by Robert Hardman. This is of course one of many books that have been released in the lead up to the Diamond Jubilee.
Robert Hardman is a well known observer of the Monarchy and the writer of several internationally acclaimed royal documentaries including ‘The Queen’s Castle’ and ‘Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work'(and the accompanying book of the same name). The latter series was known here in Australia as ‘A Year with the Royal Family’. He is also columnist for the Daily Mail in the UK.
Hardman knows his stuff. The author has interviewed a wide range of figures from the great to the small, including Prince William, John Major former UK Prime Minister and Malcolm Fraser and many other current and former heads of state and government.
William, Duke of Cambridge speaks frankly about his grandmother and his relationship with her
Whilst the author clearly respects and admires his subject, it is not a fawning work, but rather a sober reflection on what the Queen is and what she does in the performance of her constitutional, social, cultural and family duties.
Whereas the forthcoming book by Sally Bedell-Smith(which I shall review in the next fortnight) focuses on the personal elements and experiences of Elizabeth II, Hardman focuses on the Queen more broadly as Head of State, diplomat, institution and icon.
There are several chapters, but I will touch on a few by way of highlighting the work.
In the chapter called Herself, Hardman shows the personal and charmingly endearing side of Elizabeth II.
In the British Parliament the Senior Opposition Whip has title of Vice Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household and it is his duty to write what is known as a ‘message’ to the Monarch detailing the events of the days parliamentary proceedings. During the Prime Ministership of John Major this duty fell to Sydney Chapman, MP for Chipping Barnet.
Parliamentary discourse that day focused on the seemingly endless scandals that had beset the Tory Government.
In reporting this discourse Her Majesty’s Vice Chamberlain was rather lost for words and decided that a little levity was needed. Hardman writes that Chapman describes the message he sent to Queen as follows:
“there were all these scandals going on so I composed this message, in the traditional third person way, saying that even Her Majesty’s Vice-Chamberlain had dreamed that he himself was involved in a scandal and had been caught writing secret notes to a married lady of great importance living in a large house. I thought I might have overstepped the mark. But it obviously went down all right because I got a very nice call from someone at the Palace saying: “Everyone here wishes they were Sydney Chapman right now!”
As Hardman reflects it obviously didn’t do Chapman any harm to show some well-judged humour: Sydney Chapman had the unusual honour of, when having stepped down from the job, being offered an instant knighthood.
Also in the same chapter, one of the things that comes shining through is the professionalism of Elizabeth II and indeed her ability to teach the rookies of world stage a thing or two and lead by diplomatic example and be sensitive to the embarrassment of others.
Hardman describes when Barack Obama, President of the United States and his wife were attending a State Dinner in honour of their visit to the United Kingdom:
“There was an excruciating moment in May 2011 when President Barack Obama raised a toast to the Queen at the end of his state banquet speech but then carried on speaking. By now the Orchestra of the Scots Guards had already started playing the National Anthem and it was too late for them to stop. When both had finished, the Queen simply turned to her guest and said: ‘That was very kind.’ ”
Barack Obama toasing the Queen just moments before his unfortunate diplomatic faux pas
One can imagine our Queen flashing her famous smile and handling the situation with grace and the kind of calm assurance that comes with being a constitutional monarch. Many a modern celebrity or political aspirant should take note.
In the chapter Her Image Hardman recounts one of the least known but amazing stories about the Queen. I won’t spoil that one for you, for it was a truly unique event, and involved a royal domestic row being caught on film, tennis rackets been thrown, a courtier of the old school – showing why the British once conquered a quarter of the globe – and it all happened here on our very shores in O’Shannassy Reservoir in Victoria during the 1954 Royal Visit.
The Queen and Prince Philip at a Chalet on the shores of the Shannassy Reservoir in Victoria, 1954
I feel almost seditious writing this, but was a joy to read about that little episode for a variety of reasons, mostly because of the then young Queens professionalism that shined through.
Her Politicians looks at the Queens constitutional and practical political roles. I found it fascinating to read about some of the inner workings of the Privy Council, especially the fact that the Privy Council has nations such as several of the Caribbean realms that still hold it as their highest court.
Hardman cites the fact that in several of those countries the death penalty is still used and on given day when the Council is meeting the Queen could be giving Royal Assent to a bill on any range of matters including appeals from a condemned man on death row in the Caribbean. The Privy Council doesn’t carry out sentencing, but it does judge appeals. Should the appeal be denied, then with just a word from the Queen, that word being ‘Approved’, then a man is condemned to the gallows.
However distasteful it maybe to countries like Australia or Britain to countenance such a policy as the death penalty, when it is a choice of a democratic nation to still have this policy then the Queen must – as she has always done – remain above the fray and responsive to the constitutional needs over the nations over which she reigns.
The chapter Her Strength and Stay borrows its name from the Queen’s description of her husband some years ago. This chapter focuses on Prince Philip, his role in the nation and commonwealth, but also as a husband and father.
As Hardman notes Prince Philip is the last major presence on the world stage that served on operational duties during the Second World War.
In the final chapter Heads and Tails, Hardman explores the person of the monarch as head of commonwealth and international diplomatic figure, including her symbolic pre-eminence on the world stage.
It also examines the Royal Commonwealth and the relations between the Crown and such realms as Australia and New Zealand.
Hardman notes issues such as republicanism in Australia and Queens fair and honourable handling of the whole issue. Thankfully for Australia’s reputation abroad he doesn’t dwell on the spurious and often trite tactics of republicans themselves.
Interviewing John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand, he discusses amongst other things the success of the policy of reintroducing knighthoods.
John Key, Prime Minister of New Zealand in audience with the Queen
One of the charming things about this book is Hardman’s style of writing which makes the book read as if it is a literary sequel to both the series that Hardman penned: ‘The Queen’s Castle’ and ‘Monarchy: The Royal Family at Work’.
The only complaint I could come up with about this book was that I wish it had been longer and Hardman had been able to pack more into it as it, as it was a delight to read.
Our Queen by Robert Hardman is available for $24.77 at The Book Depository. By following the above links and purchasing the book, your purchase will help benefit ACM directly, and as with all orders from the Book Depository postage is free.