The Private Life of The Queen – From the unwelcome visitor at the Palace to the joy of losing herself in a crowd

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Can you get me a taxi?

For the past two years, the distinguished royal author and Mail writer Robert Hardman has enjoyed unprecedented access to the world of Elizabeth II as she prepares to mark her Diamond Jubilee.

The result is Our Queen, the most important and authoritative royal book for years —serialised this week exclusively in the Daily Mail. Today, he presents a fascinating new perspective on the personality and style of the most famous woman in the world.

By Robert Hardman
The Mail

Few of those dashing through the duty-free section of Singapore’s Changi Airport paused to look twice. Perhaps the well-dressed lady browsing through the cosmetics section looked vaguely familiar. But it could hardly be . . . 

And so, for a contented hour or thereabouts, while her plane was being refuelled on the runway, Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed the novel experience of being just another anonymous transit passenger.

‘It was a secure area, no one was expecting her, and she had a lovely time browsing at the Clarins counter while Prince Philip went off to look at gadgets,’ says one of the royal party who accompanied her on that 2002 journey from Australia to London. ‘Those sorts of moments, that we all take for granted, mean a lot to her.’

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One of the crowd: Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Horse Show with a guest in May
Photo by David Hartley

The Queen’s children and grandchildren find her endearingly envious of their own relative freedom to express opinions, or to do the kind of things that are acceptable for some members of the family but are off-limits for the Sovereign. Royalty is a life, not a career.

‘The Queen knows she doesn’t have to go on the Underground, or queue for a bus, or deal with the other daily hazards of our lives,’ says Ron Allison, former press secretary. ‘And that is part of what makes her determined to do her duty as she sees it, such as go to Belfast in the pouring rain.’

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Blending in: The Queen craves occasions
where she can become part of the crowd

But it is also why she remains particularly close to her stud groom, Terry Pendry, and her dresser, Angela Kelly. ‘They talk to her about day-to-day life in the real world,’ says one member of staff.

No wonder one of the highlights of the Queen’s year is the Royal Windsor Horse Show, where she can wander around in a headscarf being part of a crowd, rather than its object.

It is often said by —and of —those in authority that it is lonely at the top. There are times when the Queen prefers to seek the company of her dogs or horses. She will sometimes have pressing matters on her mind which she is constitutionally forbidden from sharing with those closest to her. But she guards that detachment keenly.

Over-familiarity is discouraged. Even experienced staff occasionally find they have transgressed the unmarked line with what might seem an innocuous remark.

A former official recalls: ‘Once, when everyone had just come back from their Christmas holidays, I said to the Queen: “Did you have a nice Christmas?”

‘I got a very cold stare back. It was the kind of remark you’d make to anyone else, but you were not encouraged to make to the Queen. Everybody’s had the same experience.

‘You’d think: “Wow, we’re getting on really well.” And then she’d do something that just reminded you, that just pushed you back at a distance.’

This was not, however, a mark of displeasure or rudeness. The Queen cannot abide rudeness, and can be fiercely protective if anyone behaves improperly to her staff. It is more a sort of self-protection, as she explained to the same official later.

‘The Queen told me that she was very influenced by Queen Mary, who’d given her tips about how you behave as a Queen,’ says the official. ‘One of them was that you never allow yourself to get too close to your advisers.’

To outsiders, this sense of position can seem peculiar, but the royal-courtier working dynamic is unique.

‘You’re not there to be their mate —you mustn’t cross the line for very good reasons,’ says Elizabeth Buchanan, private secretary to the Prince of Wales until 2008. ‘When I got there, I was startled by how much you get to know about their lives. People see things that are very intimate. A huge amount of trust is put upon your shoulders, and it has to be respected.

‘That’s why titles are crucial. If you don’t buy into that basic respect, then the whole thing’s going to wind up very quickly. It’s the same with ministers who want everyone to call them by their first name; it disrupts the relationship very quickly.’

And no one, however grand, is immune from the royal ‘stare’ —described by one who has witnessed it as ‘open eyes, absolutely no expression’.

London’s embassy circuit is still talking about the recent diplomatic reception at the Palace where one diplomat arrived late and missed his allotted place in the introduction line. Rather than miss out on his handshake and chat with the Queen, he pushed into the line further down.

This was not a wise move. Not only was there no royal chat, but he found himself on the receiving end of ‘the stare’, and was promptly escorted away by officials.

It is a great tribute to the Queen that, even after her 60 years on the throne, she continues to get it right when it comes to the great royal paradox: we want our monarchs to be just like us but also completely different from us.

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Official duty: Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret, Prince William and Prince Harry
on balcony at Buckingham Palace

I have been granted privileged access to those who really do know her, and those who work, or have worked, with her. I have spoken to members of the Royal Family, prime ministers, private secretaries, prelates, pages, footmen and friends. I’ve been able to follow her around the world, and around her own Palace at close quarters.

What comes through time and again is the Queen’s sharpness of eye and mind. However traditional and formulaic the ways of the Royal Household might appear to some, complacency is out of the question.

Most organisations or businesses run by the same person for nearly 60 years become static, if not ossified.

Yet this one has been gathering momentum in the other direction. It’s down, in part, to a general loosening of the royal collar.

‘She doesn’t want to do the same old thing any more,’ says a former private secretary. ‘She likes shorter greeting lines and fewer of them, with more young people.’

She is smiling more these days, indulging her own interests a little more. If an awayday to the regions errs more towards horses and children than trade promotion, then so be it.

As ever, duty comes first, but she’s now keen to spend a little longer ‘at home’ in Windsor, so the occasional investiture is shifted from Buckingham Palace to the castle.

There’s less of a beady eye on the clock, too —a far cry from the super-punctual Princess Elizabeth, who took to prodding her mother’s Achilles tendon with an umbrella during the 1947 South African tour to keep the royal show on schedule.

Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the aura around her has changed. The Queen has now acquired the status of national treasure.

There is nothing contrived about this. It began in early 2002 following the deaths of Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother.

Sir John Major echoes a popular Household view: ‘At about the time the Queen Mother died, the Queen effectively became the “mother of the nation”.’

The Queen Mother could, in the public’s eye, do no wrong. But those sentiments never extended to the Queen. She was respected and admired, but there wasn’t the same sense of indulgence.

‘I always believed that, much as she’d miss her mother, the Queen would actually find life in public easier [without her],’ says a former senior adviser.

‘In the past, you had the throne being squeezed by the dazzling young generation and the dazzling old generation. Now, the Queen has inherited the mother-of-the-nation role and William is looking like a paragon, while it’s Prince Charles in the middle.

‘I think the Queen found it quite tough sometimes. Of course, she misses her mother every day because they talked every day; they wrote letters to each other all the time. They were a tremendous double act. But it wasn’t a comfortable role for the Queen, always to be told how marvellous her mother was.’

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Close: the Queen Mother and the Queen in Windsor, they were known as a tremendous double act

He sums up the Queen’s approach to the job today as follows: ‘There’s a serenity about her. But I think if you’re of an age, you have a pretty old-fashioned faith, you do your best every day . . . well, if you’re criticised for it, you’re not going to get much better whatever you do. What’s the point of worrying?’

Her prime ministers have learned that one should never make assumptions about the 85-year-old monarch, who has been our Head of State for nearly 60 years.

‘There’s a view of the Queen that she’s just a small-c conservative,’ says Tony Blair. ‘And that’s not true. She’s just very protective of the monarchy.

‘What I found to be her most surprising attribute is how streetwise she is. Frequently, throughout my time as prime minister, I was stunned by her total ability to pick up the public mood.’ John Major agrees: ‘There’s very little she hasn’t seen. In my own experience, there’s almost nothing that ruffles her.’

There has been the odd exception, of course. Senior officials still shudder as they recall the saga of the flagless Palace mast in the days before the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997.

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Family: The Queen Mother and King George with Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret

First a handful of mourners, then the papers, followed by the phone-ins, the politicians and finally the Queen’s own senior advisers advocated a half-mast Union Flag.

But the Queen stood resolute: only a Royal Standard should fly above the Palace, she decreed, and no death, including her own, should lower it.

Mary Francis, her then deputy private secretary, says the flag saga is the only occasion she can recall when the Queen expressed real anger.

Eventually, the Monarch was persuaded to amend tradition —but not before a very senior adviser was heard to say: ‘I have been scarred by the Queen.’

However, there was to be absolutely no compromise during the 1973 state visit of the corrupt and unhinged President Mobutu of Zaire and his wife —the aptly named Marie-Antoinette.

Mobutu’s penchant for barmy titles and executing his opponents in front of large crowds must have made the small-talk challenging.

But what made the Queen angrier than some had ever seen her was learning that Mrs Mobutu had smuggled a small dog through customs. Worse still, the president’s wife was ordering it steak from the Palace kitchens.

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At Sandringham: The Queen with two of her five cockerspaniels

The trusted deputy master of the household, Lord Plunket, was summoned by an incandescent Sovereign and told: ‘Get that dog out of my house!’
‘I don’t know how he did it,’ says Ron Allison. ‘But it was taken off to the kennels at Heathrow.’

Direct confrontation is not the Queen’s style. Any private secretary who recommends a course of action that does not appeal is usually told: ‘I don’t think that’s quite right.’

But her preferred method of expressing disapproval is to say, ‘Are you sure?’ or simply to ask a lot of questions. As one former senior adviser puts it: ‘She was born in the Twenties and brought up to believe that men get on with things, whereas women exercise power through quiet influence, not shaking their fists.’

A typical example of her feminine approach to a potentially explosive political issue was the way in which she dealt with a controversial housing dispute last year.

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Royal Weddings: The Queen arrives for Zara Phillips
and Mike Tindall’s wedding

The Crown Estate was planning to sell 1,230 homes across London to a private company for £250 million. The sale was enormously unpopular with the residents, who feared soaring rents and evictions if their homes fell into the hands of a private developer. They wrote to the Queen in droves.

Constitutionally, of course, she couldn’t stop the sale. The Crown Estate answers to the Treasury and the Chancellor. Instead, she asked the keeper of the privy purse to contact the Crown Estate and ask why they were selling all those homes at that precise moment, and what they were planning to do with the money.

When the Crown Estate replied that it planned to reinvest the money in Regent Street, the Queen was unimpressed. The middle of a recession could hardly be the ideal time to sell the homes of 1,230 families, she replied.

All summer, she deployed the tactic of asking more and more questions.

Then suddenly, in October, the houses were sold for a knock-down £150 million to a well-respected housing association. The homes were secure. The controversy melted away and the politicians patted themselves on the back.

No one thought to ask what the Queen had to say on the matter. Why should they? She couldn’t possibly get involved in anything political. Could she?

In fact, the Queen isn’t scared to take on politicians when she believes they’re interfering with her personally. When the British government urged her not to visit Canada in 1964 because of separatist unrest, she ignored her ministers and went.

In 1961, she came close to causing a constitutional crisis by disregarding Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s advice to cancel a visit to Ghana just days after an outbreak of bombs and civil unrest. Her own safety, the Queen believes, is largely a matter for her own judgment.

Indeed, when anyone proposes saturation security, she’s been heard to retort: ‘I have to be seen to be believed.’

And for royal sang-froid, it’s hard to match her remark after a concrete block was dropped on her car from a Belfast tower block. Shrugging her shoulders, she observed: ‘It’s a strong car.’

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All smiles: Queen Elizabeth II during the unveiling of a statue of the Queen Mother

At a recent private lunch, her view on safety was, as ever, rooted in practicality. ‘I’m not afraid of being killed,’ she said. ‘I just don’t want to be maimed.’

Her attitude to danger mirrors her view on boredom: never complain. ‘In more than 20 years of working for her, I’ve never heard her say, “That was the most boring day ever” or “Gosh, that Lord Mayor was a bore”,’ says a former private secretary.

Of course, she’d be less than human if she didn’t find some of her encounters bordering on the narcoleptic. But, as well as being unusually tolerant, she has the knack of picking out tiny details in the most mundane situation.

As the former Comptroller, Sir Malcolm Ross, observes: ‘It’s one of the amazing skills she has. She’d come out of an investiture and say: “Did you see the man in the red socks?” And I’d think: “How did she see him!”

Her eye for detail keeps everyone on toes. Ron Allison says that the Queen would sometimes help him do his job as press secretary —such as when she spotted a rogue photographer creeping into a forbidden spot. With little more than a raised eyebrow and a slight jerk of the head, she caught Allison’s eye and directed him to the miscreant.

Just as she’ll find something unusual in the most repetitive situations, so the Queen loves the unexpected. ‘As a diplomat, you’re always worrying something will go wrong,’ says former Tory foreign secretary Lord Hurd. ‘But you don’t realise that the Royal Family lead such curious lives that they’re longing for something to go wrong.

‘That’s the late-night conversation: “Did you see that chap with his shirt undone? Did you see the man on the left fall over?”’

But while the Queen enjoys the occasional unscripted glitch, she is also sensitive to the embarrassment of others. If someone makes an innocent mistake, she’d rather press on than dwell on it.

There was an excruciating moment in May this year when President Barack Obama raised a toast to the Queen at the end of his state banquet speech, but carried on speaking. The orchestra of the Scots Guards had already started playing the National Anthem and it was too late for either of them to stop.

When both had finished, the Queen simply turned to her guest and said sweetly: ‘That was very kind.’

Once, on an engagement in Lanarkshire, she noticed that her then Lord-Lieutenant, Lord Clydesmuir, was having considerable trouble extracting both himself and his sword from the official car.

Meanwhile, an embarrassed line of people were waiting for him to introduce them.

Taking in the scene, the Queen marched up to the greeting line, with her hand outstretched.

‘My Lord-Lieutenant appears to be having difficulty in getting out of the car,’ she said. ‘So I’d better introduce myself.’

‘I’m the Queen.’

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See Related: Why Tony Blair wished he hadn’t made the Queen cry

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