George V and Queen Camilla
I have been waiting to read Jane Ridley’s next book ever since I read Bertie: A Life of Edward VII nine years ago. Royal biography is a strange genre. It requires tact, revelation, a sense of propriety, and knowing wit. Successful authors will be able to parse the evolution of the state without losing sight of the eccentricities of their subject and the role of domestic life in the political story. This blend of emotion and ideas, entertainment and analysis, makes it closer to the novel than many other forms of biography, even though it seems in many ways to be a much more factual, historical, and altogether un-novelistic sub-genre.
Jane Ridley has none of the qualities that make Royal biography boring or pointless: she is not snobbish or sneering. Some of them are at once greasily impressed by their subject’s status and haughtily superior to their philistinism. James Pope-Hennessy wrote to his brother about Queen Mary (one of my favourites), ‘I think I can get away with murder if everything is presented as making Grannie grander and stronger & more utterly marvellous.’ This is decidedly not Ridley’s agenda. George V is an excellent book about Queen Mary and has rescued her reputation. Mary was a fascinating woman misunderstood by a lot of conventional men. Ridley is the first biographer to portray her properly. (Pope-Hennessy is one of the biographers Ridley corrects as she goes along. Very enjoyable it is, too.)
With poor old Queenie on light duties (long may she live), reading George V: Never a Dull Moment got me thinking about the way the monarchy might have to anticipate new challenges when Charles becomes king. That is what I wrote about for UnHerd this week, in an essay that looks closely at parts of the political story of George’s reign and how it might relate to Charles III.
Stamfordham’s advice kept George on the right side of the constitution. During the Irish Home Rule crisis, George drafted a crude letter threatening to veto a bill unless it was put to the electorate — something no monarch has done since 1708. The accepted wisdom is that the royal veto no longer exists. But Vernon Bogdanor, the constitutional expert, has said that the use of the veto in similar situations remains an open question. Imagine Parliament sent Charles III a bill to abolish civil liberties. We might well prefer him to copy his great-grandfather’s threatened intervention than his mother’s scrupulous impartiality.
It was the very real threat of civil war in Ireland — a threat the complacent Asquith met with endless rounds of champagne and bridge — that drove George to meddle. Sounding a lot like Charles in conversation with Dimbleby, he wrote to Asquith in 1914, “I cannot help feeling that the government is drifting and taking me with it.” And without George, Ulster might have been bloodier: he organised a non-partisan conference, for instance, and told Bonar Law, the Tory leader, to restrain his practically seditious rhetoric — which is more than we expect of the Queen, but less than we might get from Charles.
As you might have guessed from the title, I also believe that just as Queen Mary was important to George, so Queen Camilla will be important to Charles. Consorts can make or break a reign. It’s time we took the idea of crowning her as Queen seriously.