Marking the 40th anniversary of her accession, the Queen reflected, with masterly understatement, that 1992 was not a year she would look back on “with undiluted pleasure”.
Note: This article is from the Guardian.
Marking the 40th anniversary of her accession, the Queen reflected, with masterly understatement, that 1992 was not a year she would look back on "with undiluted pleasure".
Her "annus horribilis" saw the Prince of Wales separate from Diana, his first wife, and her sensational portrayal in Andrew Morton's biography – a de facto autobiography, it later transpired – as a betrayed, self-mutilating bulimic. The Princess Royal divorced. The Duke of York's freshly estranged wife, Sarah, graced the tabloids topless and having her toes sucked by an enthusiastic "financial adviser". The popularity of the royal family, unsurprisingly, ebbed.
Capping all that, Windsor Castle almost burned down, precipitating an uncommon public tear to well in the regal eye.
So, how much better Her Majesty must feel 20 years later, celebrating her diamond jubilee with "the firm" bobbing along confidently on a tide of goodwill still flowing from the wedding of her grandson and next-but-one in line, the Duke of Cambridge?
Having expertly helmed a creaking HMS Monarchy past reefs of controversy and through squalls of public anger over 60 dutiful years, the Queen can take pleasure in the knowledge that, for the moment at least, she has steered it to safer anchorage in calmer waters.
"My sense is that Buckingham Palace feels pretty comfortable at the moment. The Cambridges are coming on. And the jubilee, barring a catastrophe, will work to their advantage," said Oxford University historian Dr Frank Prochaska, author of The Republic of Britain. "Don't forget, they are very clever at adjusting and they have been reasonably successful."
The rude health of the monarchy today perhaps owes much to those dark days of the 1990s. Then, the "War of the Waleses" really "put paid to any claim to being a model of family life", said Robert Lacey, chronicler of the House of Windsor since his bestselling Majesty was published on the Queen's silver jubilee 35 years ago.
All vestige of dignity was stripped as first "Squidgygate", a private telephone conversation between Diana and gin heir James Gilbey, and then "Camillagate", a mortifyingly intimate late-night telephone exchange between Charles and his now wife, both mysteriously surfaced to appear on tabloid hotlines.
Subjects were invited to eavesdrop, which thousands did at 36p per minute. The antics of younger royals, in particular the Duchess of York, also regularly engorged negative headlines.
Fed this relentless diet of disharmony, the public stuck the knife in and twisted it, hard. Appeasement came at a price extracted from a Queen pretty much universally feted as the most diligent and decorous of monarchs as the cost of her brood's perceived bad behaviour.
"No institution, City, monarchy, whatever, should expect to be free from the scrutiny of those who give it their loyalty and support, not to mention those who don't," she said in a humble Guildhall address, designed to defuse this growing crisis.
Even so, a scandal-weary public still balked at prime minister John Major's suggestion it meet the cost of Windsor's repairs. The upshot was Buckingham Palace being opened to a paying public to raise the funds.
Infinitely more significant, however, was the shape of the royal family as it emerged from this period. The Queen and Prince Charles announced they would "volunteer" to pay tax on their private incomes, and open themselves up to greater parliamentary financial scrutiny. The civil list was also reduced, with the Queen agreeing to meet the expenses of the bulk of the family out of her own inherited Duchy of Lancaster income.
"One thing that [the Queen] mistakenly tried to hang on to was her tax exemption," said Lacey, who in his newly published book A Brief Life of The Queen asserts her reluctance was in part influenced by her mother, who was fiercely against.
Constitutional expert Vernon Bogdanor, research professor at King's College London, believes the main change the Queen has overseen during her reign is the transformation "from a rather magical monarchy to a public service monarchy".
"In 1952 we were a very deferential society. Apparently, one third of people thought she had been chosen by God." The monarchy was a "distant and remote institution". Now "it is a much more utilitarian institution, to be judged by what it contributes to public service and community feeling", said Bogdanor.
The advent of television invited an inevitable erosion of the edifice of monarchy as the Queen's father, George VI, knew it, with media respect for the privacy of the royal family dwindling in proportion to exposure, profoundly changing the sovereign's relationship with the people.
Millions tuned in to watch Prince Charles admit adultery in a Jonathan Dimbleby interview, even more to watch Diana's sensational Panorama interview with Martin Bashir.
Diana's premature death and the PR disaster that was the royal family's initial response to this shocking tragedy exposed them as bewildered and out of touch. Public anger demanded a flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace, and the presence of the Queen in London as public hysteria grew outside Kensington Palace.
Undoubtedly shaken, in the aftermath the Queen sought help from outside the palace "old guard" in the shape of sharp corporate PRs. Market research was introduced.
Monarchy has to "adapt and evolve" to survive, said Bogdanor. "It can't be ahead of public opinion, but it can't be too far behind. It's a difficult balance to achieve."
"Obviously, the jubilee shows how enormously popular she [the Queen] is. It is interesting, even in the 1990s, and her annus horribilis, in terms of opinion polls the support for the monarchy has remained extraordinarily stable. The attacks on it, including those from the Guardian, haven't actually had much influence on public opinion," said Bogdanor.
The "Way Ahead" group was formed in the mid-1990s, drawing together senior advisers and family members twice a year to take the pulse of opinion and discuss policy. Its discussions have since led to leaders of the Commonwealth realms working toward monumental changes to the laws on succession, allowing first-born royal females to have precedence, and future monarchs to marry Roman Catholics though, as head of the Church of England, not actually to be one.
During her reign the Queen has chosen to follow the safe path set by her grandfather, George V, and continued by her father in overseeing a "welfare monarchy".
"This is the major adjustment made by Buckingham Palace," said Prochaska, "their response to the acceleration of social change. These people aren't dumb. They create a response on advice.
"When the monarchy lost its political power, they filled the vacuum with social service, with the patronage role. George III had nine patronages. The Queen has 700-800. The extended royal family have, between them, roughly 3,500."
He added: "Now, the metropolitan intelligentsia doesn't realise this is taking place, because they are not following them to places say, like Burnley. But in Burnley, the Prince of Wales has heroic status. People reading the Guardian in London probably don't know that the Prince's Trust has created tens of thousands of jobs around the country. But all people talk about is alternative medicine, which is such a small part of the prince's thinking, bizarre though it is."
The Queen, on once being asked what is the most important thing she does, replied: "investitures", the administration of MBEs, OBEs and CBEs, according to Lacey.
It's a view George V also embraced and, said Lacey, there are "curious similarities" between the two – "apparently old-fashioned and conventional, but in fact very, very nimble in terms of public relations".
Lacey hails George V as the "saviour of the British monarchy" when the "Germans, Austrians and Russians all went to the wall". The latter, all perched atop blue-blooded pyramids, drew their life blood from the aristocracy, which collapsed. George V, meanwhile, "saw the importance of connecting with those at the bottom of the pile", said Lacey.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube are all part of the apparatus employed now not just at Buckingham Palace, but also across Green Park at St James's Palace, where the future of the monarchy resides. Here is where the main focus now lies for a family committed to survival.
Under the watchful eye of Charles's communications chief, Paddy Harverson – who played a large part in the concerted "hearts and minds" offensive that saw the once unthinkable – Camilla Parker Bowles embraced into the royal fold – this hotshot team is charged with the smooth continuation of the House of Windsor.
It includes Sandhurst-educated ex-SAS officer Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, private secretary to William and Harry, and their communication supremo, Miguel Head, formerly from the Ministry of Defence.
The Queen has dispensed with formal PR spin doctors after a brief dalliance, content to entrust such affairs to the experienced hands of her private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt, a former civil servant and UN adviser to the Balkans.
As she winds down, so activity is increasing across the park, with eyes on the young Duke of Cambridge, a future king who calls people "mate" and is referred to by his brother as "the Dude".
That he is who he is is probably the Queen's family's greatest achievement, said Lacey. "Who would have thought in the annus horribilis in the 1990s, that 20 years later you would see Prince William walking down the aisle, effectively being given away by Prince Charles and his stepmother, the former Camilla Parker Bowles? If you had predicted that, you would have been thought crazy.
"I actually think that out of all of the mess, the royal family has discovered it can't uphold the old-fashioned values of family life any better than anyone else. But you can set an example of care, concern, forgiveness, and understanding. And, at that royal wedding, that's what we saw."
He added: "This jubilee doesn't just celebrate a person, though it rightly celebrates the Queen's personal qualities and achievements. It celebrates an institution and its incredible survival and flowering under her."
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