BOOKS: by R.J. Stove (reviewer)News Weekly
DIGNIFIED AND EFFICIENT: The British Monarchy in the Twentieth Century
, January 31, 2004
DIGNIFIED AND EFFICIENT: The British Monarchy in the Twentieth Century
By Charles Douglas-Home and Saul Kelly
Available from News Weekly Books for $33.00 plus p&hCharles Douglas-Home, who died in 1985 aged only 48, made an improbable historian and a still more improbable chronicler of kingship.
For his main achievement had consisted of being, during his last three years, The Times
' editor: in other words, the protégé of Rupert Murdoch, and thus bearing ex officio
the same relationship to serious intellectual endeavour which the late Myra Hindley bore to child protection. (He is widely credited with - and he certainly never denied - screaming down the phone to his predecessor Harold Evans the authentically Murdochian promise: "You little ****, I'll come in there and wring your neck.")Elegant work
This fact makes it all the more astonishing that Dignified and Efficient
should be a valuable, scholarly and elegant piece of work, one well worth retrieving.
Douglas-Home finished only two-thirds of his intended project, dying before he could discuss post-1945 Britain; Saul Kelly has brought the tale up to the late 1990s.
Probably the best part of Douglas-Home's guided tour is the first part, which treats Edward VII's role in domestic and, above all, European policy. Through cool provision of primary source material, Douglas-Home dismantles the myth - perpetuated by historians J. A. Thompson, Arthur Mejia and John Cannon - of Edward as a marionette with successive Foreign Secretaries pulling the strings. (Cannon actually likened Edward to "a retarded schoolboy".) This was not how contemporaries interpreted his diplomatic manoeuvres. Both as Prince of Wales and as King he did, after all, charm even such tough French republicans as Léon Gambetta, Paul Cambon and Raymond Poincaré (to say nothing of the comparably outspoken Liberal Sir William Harcourt at home). And this despite his total absence of great intellectual powers, or even a talent for sustained concentration.
The summary by Edward's Private Secretary Lord Esher remains, as Douglas-Home confirms, a valid one: "He [Edward] had one supreme gift, and this was his unerring judgement of men and women."
Douglas-Home's coverage of George V is necessarily less vivid, partly because of this sovereign's more introverted temperament - he preferred stamp-collecting to his father's round of yachting and womanising - yet partly because the exigencies of 1914-18 pushed him even more completely into the background than they did his fellow monarchs in Berlin and Vienna.
Kaiser Wilhelm once complained, "The General Staff tells me nothing ... I drink tea, chop wood and take walks, and from time to time I hear that this and that has been done."
George V could have used the same words: especially after the enforced wartime royal surname change from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor announced his impotence against blind populist chauvinism.
The pity is that whenever given a chance, George showed substantial foresight.
He distrusted Admiral Sir John Fisher's paranoia from the first; cordially loathed having to drop H. H. Asquith as Prime Minister in favour of the amoral Lloyd George (to whom he later somewhat warmed); reprimanded, on occasion, such Gradgrind-like pseudo-Conservative oafs as Lord Derby; behaved not just with fairness, but with a generous spirit, towards Ramsay Macdonald; and did what little he could, compatible with royal dignity, to win over de Valera after the Black and Tan excesses.
From these events emerges a pattern of lasting shrewdness that his eldest son notoriously failed to inherit. "After I am dead", George V prophesied with chilling accuracy, "that boy [Edward VIII] will ruin himself in 12 months."
Neither Douglas-Home nor any other writer has fully conveyed the allure which "that boy" must have possessed. How else but with such allure could he have turned Lloyd George, Churchill, H. G. Wells, and Oswald Mosley (united on no other topic) into passionate admirers? And how much, or how little, responsibility for the ultimate 1936 disaster must Wallis Simpson bear?
This question's definitive answer has eluded Douglas-Home, as it has eluded all previous commentators. The notion of the ex-King as slavering apologist for Hitler bears little relation to the facts Douglas-Home marshals.
Nevertheless, Douglas-Home admits the tenacity with which Ribbentrop, among other leading Nazis, believed (with limited justification) in the Duke of Windsor's geopolitical usefulness.Political role
So much has long been reasonably familiar fare to students of modern Britain; but George VI's political role is much less well recognised. On April 2, 2002, a certain Sydney Morning Herald
hack called George VI "a real live Bertie Wooster character out of a P.G. Woodhouse [sic!
] novel". Presumably he had either never condescended to learn of, or deliberately chose to suppress, the incidents Douglas-Home recounts here: all of them (save perhaps the King's initial hope - indiscreet but, in 1940, comprehensible - of having Lord Halifax as PM instead of Churchill) to the King's credit.
Well before D-Day, George VI realised - partly through being able to talk to De Gaulle in French
, a skill not conspicuous in the American high command - that "Mongénéral" was, like him or not, the Frenchman of the future.
This at a time when Roosevelt and Eisenhower retained their bizarre belief in the eternal charismatic powers of that bumptious turncoat Admiral Darlan and of that amiable back-number General Giraud.
The King also voiced alarm about Yalta, which is not only more than most of the general public did, but much more than FDR (by 1945 wholly senile) ever bothered doing.
He revealed a pre-Hiroshima knowledge of the atomic bomb which compared very favourably to the ignorant scepticism of America's Admiral Leahy, who denied that it could ever work.
So much has "changed, changed utterly" since George VI's death in 1952 that it comes as a shock to be reminded how short his lifespan was. Today even well-informed people commonly think of him as an old man, when in fact he perished at only 56. Given another two decades on the throne, he would still have been younger than his daughter is now.Disappointment
Disappointing after the book's earlier chapters is its treatment of the present Queen's reign. Saul Kelly is right to remind us of how Buckingham Palace held all the cards, in terms of public culture, as late as the early 1960s.
When one Lord Altrincham delivered himself of public diatribes against his "priggish schoolgirl" sovereign, a League of Empire Loyalists member publicly smacked his face.
Muggeridge lost his BBC job because of his peevish republican prose in 1957, which he had deliberately timed to coincide with a royal tour of America. (A. L. Rowse - admittedly not always the most scrupulous guide - on this occasion called Muggeridge "that skunk".) Even in 1977 a Labour Government could, and did, prevent the Sex Pistols' masterpiece God Save The Queen And Her Fascist Regime
from sullying BBC airwaves.
By the time Prince Charles' marriage ended there had, of course, occurred the little matter of Britain's cultural revolution. Helped along, it must be said, by the Queen's own catastrophically misguided signings into law of - wholly fictive - "rights" to abortion and homosexual intercourse.
The full moral impact of these shameful actions (with which Dr Salazar bitterly reproached her at the time) has been so comprehensively recounted by British priest Fr Edward Black, in the May 1993 issue of Catholic,
that no further comment is needed - or indeed possible - here.
Nonetheless, Dignified and Efficient
entirely ignores the issue.
It is equally silent on one crucial factor which saddled us with Princess Diana in the first place: the howls of well-orchestrated fury (from Norman Tebbit and his fellow members of the Paisleyite political underclass) at the possibility of Prince Charles taking a Catholic bride.
Not for the first time in Britain's annals, the influence-peddling of what the late historian Sir Charles Petrie bluntly called "public-house Protestantism" took precedence over the most basic national self-interest. (Curiously Sir Charles, whose histories of monarchism are indispensable to the serious student, receives no mention in this book.)
Kelly is better when it comes to describing that apparently endless nightmare of post-colonial grandstanding, the Commonwealth - of which Elizabeth II has been so regrettably determined an upholder - but refuses to examine even this too keenly, no doubt through justified terror of Whitehall's "anti-racist" thought-police.
As for the ever more obvious similarity between the Queen's role apropos Blair and Hindenburg's role apropos Hitler, that surely deserves an article (or, rather, a book) to itself.Dignified and Efficient
, therefore, finishes much less impressively than it starts. Its numerous typographical errors - "apostacy", "the worse news" where the context clearly requires "the worst news", "George V" in a footnote where the context equally clearly requires "George VI", and, alas, so on - also irk.
Still, however flawed, it contains in its earlier portions enough genuine scholarly meat to make for numerous satisfying meals.