Elizabeth The Queen: Sally Bedell Smith On The Monarch's Bipartisanship And Feminism
The Diamond Jubilee year of 2012 marks 60 years since Queen Elizabeth's accession to the throne -- and it's bringing out the biographers in hordes. Elizabeth The Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch was written by Sally Bedell Smith, whose previous works include biographies on the Kennedy's White House and Princess Diana, sat down with the Huffington Post Canada to talk about what she observed during her three years writing the book,
HPC: How did you go about getting sources, given that the Queen won't give interviews?
SBS: There were quite a few people who helped me with the Diana book, so I went back to my key sources and they agreed to help me again. Initially Buckingham Palace, when I sent a letter to them, basically said, 'well, that's very nice, but you're on your own,' but eventually, several people who worked for the Queen and others who knew her very well vouched for me. After about six months they agreed to give me their cooperation. They gave the green light to people to talk to me, and they enabled me to travel with the Queen and to see her and Philip in many different settings. Just to see how she was received and how she interacted with people and how the two of them worked together was very helpful.
HPC: And how is the Queen received when she travels? Obviously, there is some tension about her role in places.
SBS: Enthusiastically, everywhere. Just everywhere. I went up with her to Hull, which was fascinating, particularly since Hull is a Republican-oriented area, it's not known to be as Monarchist as places in the south. But she's so popular now -- she's come back so much from those dark days after Diana's death, and people appreciate her now, much more than they ever did. I think that turning point really came 10 years ago with her Golden Jubilee and it's even more intense now.
HPC: Did you ever hear any inklings about the future of the monarchy? For example, those murmurings about William taking the throne instead of Charles ...
SBS: It won't [go to William] - it's really not in the order of things for that to happen, and the royals very much believers in the way things are supposed to happen. I think public opinion polls have expressed that desire [for William to be king], because they are, as David Cameron said, the team of the future. Charles has waited longer than any Prince of Wales ever to succeed his mother, and the way it works is the Queen dies, and the next in line takes over. And the only way in which William could succeed to the throne would be if Charles were to abdicate. Which is doable, and maybe if in 10 years time, when the Queen is 95 years old and she dies and Charles becomes king in his mid-70s, I suppose it's possible. But it requires legislation ... and abdication since 1936 has had a bad name in the royal family.
SEE: The Queen at her Diamond Jubilee celebrations:
HPC: Other than those traditions, do you think the Queen has relaxed at all in terms of royal etiquette? That incident with Michelle Obama, for example, put the world on edge.
SBS: She was raised from childhood to expect deference, but in the case of Americans, it's far more relaxed. You can shake her hand, you don't have to bow or curtsey. I had one funny incident ... when I was in Bermuda with them and we were going from one place to another on a ferry boat. I asked if I could sit by the door and watch her do her walkaround. So I sat in a little corner on a banquette, and when she came in, instead of walking the other way, she walked right toward me.
I was in this terrible quandary, because I know when the Queen approaches, you're supposed to stand up. I thought, okay, if I stand up, I'll be standing right in front of her and it'll be incredible awkward. And so I just sort of sat there, and she walked by and she sort of looked at me, and Prince Philip walked by and he sort of looked at me, and David Miliband, who is the foreign secretary, just sort of waved at me. I told her press secretary afterward and she said, 'oh, she probably laughed.' So the Queen expects to be deferred to, to a large extent, but something like that, she wouldn't take exception to.
HPC: Do you think that's thanks to a relaxed approach to rules, or a recognition of society's changes?
SBS: I think it's probably both -- it's the way that she has moved along as things have changed. She's still a great believer in traditions, but I think she recognizes that society is less formal. If you look at the way William and Harry interact with people, it's much more informal. People don't even call them sir at this stage. They're the first generation to really be brought up to blend in with everybody else, as opposed as feeling different from everybody else. Whereas Charles, from the time he became Prince of Wales as a young boy, was treated almost like a miniature adult. Everybody had to defer to him and call him sir.
HPC: In the Vanity Fair excerpt of your book, it focuses on Elizabeth deciding to keep her and her children's last name as Windsor, and Philip's displeasure with this? Do you think the Queen has any feminist leanings?
SBS: [Keeping her last name] was more out of loyalty to her father and her grandfather. I wouldn't consider her a feminist, but ... contrast her with Margaret Thatcher, who was and is very much a feminist. The Queen still adheres to certain traditions, like after a formal dinner at one of her palaces or castles, the men routinely stay at the table and the women withdraw. It's a very old custom. Margaret Thatcher would have none of that. She wanted to stay at the table with the men. So whenever the Thatchers came to Balmoral for their obligatory weekend to visit in the autumn, the Queen always finessed that situation by not having any kind of a formal dinner at the castle, but rather taking them out on a picnic, because that was less formal and that tradition wasn't observed. So it wasn't that the Queen was going to bend to what Margaret Thatcher wanted.
HPC: She would just find ways around it.
SBS: Exactly. But the mere fact that she's been ... I think she believes in women's rights, and the speech that she gave at the Commonwealth conference in Australia last autumn, was the same moment that David Cameron introduced to the other Commonwealth realms, of which Canada is one, the proposed legislation to change the rules of primogeniture, so that William and Katherine's firstborn child, whether a girl or a boy, would be the next in line. And the Queen has not said anything specifically about that, but in her address to all 54 nations -- she's always very subtle about these things -- she spoke of the need to advance women.
And don't forget, she became Queen at age 25, when she was the mother of a three year old and an 18-month-old baby. None of them in that class of women, all the aristocrats she knew, none of them was a professional woman,. And she was thrown into a world of men immediately, and she had to prove her worth. And they found her to be a highly professional woman. So from that standpoint, she has been a feminist without identifying herself as such.
HPC: That's funny -- you don't usually think of the role of Queen as a profession.
SBS: It's true, but she is so far beyond a figurehead. She has a very regimented day and she has a pretty impressive range of duties. She's kept every single intelligence secret that they've ever had in Britain. She reads minutes of Cabinet meetings, she has to assent to laws passed in Parliament, she meets with diplomats and judges and senior military officers. She has all these private confidential audiences with them. So she applies all that she's learned to these meetings, and they really rely on her for wise counsel. Her role is not to give advice, necessarily, it's to be consulted, to encourage and to warn.
HPC: There's a lot of discussion here in Canada about the royals' continued relevance. During your time with the Queen, did you find that it still had a place?
SBS: Honestly, I found them to be far more relevant than I thought I would. I think there's a really good argument you can make for having a head of state who is above the political fray, who is neutral, who can perform this essential service as a sounding board, who by virtue of that neutrality and being beyond politics can help to unify a country. Obviously this presupposes that a monarch lives a life as she has, but to have somebody who not only embodies all the best values we can think of, but who actually lives them and serves as an example ...
As I was going around the US talking about this book, there's almost a wistfulness, people thinking 'American life is so partisan now, everybody's at each other's throats. Maybe we should have somebody like this to bring us all together, because the President can't do it.'
So I think Canadians are actually lucky -- I know it's an odd concept to have a head of state who resides over there, but she does love this country.