The celebrations of, and congratulations on, the Queen’s 90th birthday today are undoubtedly genuine. But she, and the institution of monarchy, haven’t always been so popular with the tabloids or the people. The following extract from Alwyn Turner’s A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s goes back to her annus horribilis…
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip celebrated their forty-fifth wedding anniversary on Friday, 20 November 1992. They weren’t, however, together to mark what should have been a happy occasion, for he was away on a trip to Argentina, in his capacity as president of the World Wide Fund for Nature. She was therefore alone when she heard the news that a fire had broken out at Windsor Castle.
She arrived from Buckingham Palace some hours after the start of the conflagration, at which point firefighters were still struggling to bring the blaze under control. Hundreds of staff were joined by Army personnel as a priceless collection of paintings, books, carpets and porcelain was removed from the burning building; in their midst, television cameras filmed the Queen, in off-duty headscarf and wellingtons, cutting a distraught and forlorn figure. ‘Her Majesty is utterly devastated,’ Prince Andrew told news reporters, the formality of his words somehow distancing viewers from what was clearly a deep personal disaster.
It was also a potential disaster for the country, whether one accepted the idea that this thousand-year-old building and its contents were held in trust and that the loss was to us all, or whether one merely counted the financial cost of the damage.
For Windsor Castle, like the other royal palaces, was not insured – the premiums would have been prohibitive – and the repairs were, announced the national heritage secretary Peter Brooke, to be paid for from the national purse. ‘The heart of the nation went out to the Queen last night,’ he said. ‘I am sure the Queen will want to see her home restored in the way which we all see fit.’
It wasn’t supposed to be a startling revelation, merely a statement of the obvious, but the idea that taxpayers were expected to pick up the estimated tab of £60 million unexpectedly aroused considerable hostility, even while the embers were still glowing.
‘With the greatest respect, Ma’am, you should foot the bill,’ said the Sunday Mirror, and its sister paper ran a telephone poll for readers in which 95 per cent of the 40,000 callers agreed with the proposition that the Queen should contribute to the restoration costs. The Sun also asked its listeners to phone and received 60,000 calls saying she should pay, against just 4,000 disagreeing.
It was a response that caused genuine shock. ‘We must have got it wrong,’ lamented one courtier. ‘At the moment of her desolation, this woman, who had done nothing but give service to her country, didn’t even have the solace of her people’s sympathy.’ A public appeal was launched and raised just £25,000.
Attitudes were changing, but those in royal circles seemed not to have noticed. ‘The suggestion that the taxpayer might foot the bill raises the question of why the Queen, in her private capacity, should not be a taxpayer also,’ pointed out Labour MP Alan Williams.
This awkward issue had been in the air all year, ever since the publication of Philip Hall’s book Royal Fortune, which examined in great detail the finances of the royal family since 1688, fuelling the argument that the Queen should pay income tax, as had her great-great-grandmother Victoria. The practice had in fact been discontinued only in 1910, when David Lloyd George, as chancellor, had done a deal with Edward VII whereby the monarch was exempt in exchange for bearing the costs of state visits.
‘Pay your taxes, you scum!’ the Queen was heckled in June 1992, at the official opening of a refurbished Leicester Square.
In fact, according to John Major, she had already agreed to do so, but had been waiting for an opportune moment to announce her decision. In the wake of the Windsor Castle fire, the announcement was rushed forward, but even then it was hardly received with unalloyed approval in all quarters. ‘H.M. the tax dodger’, mocked the front page of the Daily Mirror, with a sneering article by Alastair Campbell accompanied by a caricature of the Queen doing her sums on a pocket calculator. The following week an opinion poll commissioned by the Daily Telegraph showed that only a quarter of the population agreed with the statement that ‘the monarchy is something to be proud of’.
Something had clearly gone wrong in the relationship between the monarch and her subjects. She noted as much in a speech to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of her accession to the throne: 1992 was, she said, ‘not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.’
Much of the unpleasantness was purely personal, for this was the year that Princess Anne divorced her husband, Mark Phillips, and Prince Andrew and Prince Charles announced their separations from their wives. With her only other child, Prince Edward, yet to marry (‘nature has blessed him with a disinclination towards matrimony’, nudged the novelist A.N. Wilson), this meant that three of her children, as well as her sister, now had failed marriages.
The royal-family brand, so carefully cultivated by George VI as a way of rebuilding the monarchy’s image after the abdication crisis, was looking distinctly fragile. The only stable relationship in the entire family appeared to be the Queen’s own, and even that was called into question in 1992, when Prince Philip was asked directly by the writer Fiammetta Rocco about his much rumoured marital infidelities. It was a presumptuous question, but he laughed off such suggestions: ‘Have you ever stopped to think that for the last forty years, I have never moved anywhere without a policeman accompanying me? So how the hell could I get away with anything like that?’
He was perhaps one of the last people in the country to believe that the presence of a police officer guaranteed moral rectitude. But his patience could also be tested; when he presented an honorary degree that year to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction theory, he was heard to mutter that his own family seemed to be deconstructing…