Death of the age of deference: The ’60s ignited a social revolution that swept away all the old certainties – and suddenly even the Queen was fair game. Some feared the royals were on their way out… until the 1977 Silver Jubilee proved the sceptics wrong
Elizabeth faced the kind of challenge she had never before confronted in October 1964. For the first time in her reign, the British people had voted in a Labour Government.
At first, courtiers worried that the arrival of Harold Wilson, the product of a Yorkshire grammar school, would represent a ‘culture shock’. Indeed, some of Wilson’s ministers found the ritual of kissing hands with the Monarch, during which they were expected to walk backwards and bow, frankly absurd.
In his diary, the Labour minister Richard Crossman wrote of being ushered into a vast drawing room to see the Queen. ‘At the other end there was this little woman with a beautiful waist,’ he recalled. ‘We were uneasy, she was uneasy. Then at the end informality broke out and she said, ‘You all moved backwards very nicely,’ and we laughed.’
Queen Elizabeth is seen carrying a posy through a crowd of well-wishers near the Tower of London in June 1977
The incident set the tone for perhaps the warmest relationship with any of Elizabeth’s prime ministers. Palace insiders were struck by her rapport with the affable, cheeky Wilson — who for all his socialist principles, had enormous respect for the monarchy.
Most of Wilson’s ministers, too, were deeply impressed by the Sovereign’s warmth and encouragement.
Crossman, for example, found her shy but warm, with ‘a lovely laugh’. Wilson’s deputy George Brown, once a working-class boy from Lambeth, got on so well with the Queen, he used to call her ‘my dear’ without her being even slightly offended.
The exception was the Left-wing Tony Benn, who tried to persuade the Queen to drop her head from Britain’s stamps. But she was having none of it; both then and later, she proved brilliantly adept at preserving the traditions of the monarchy.
For Elizabeth these were relatively peaceful years. Her children were growing up and she had settled into the routine of monarchy, from Ascot and the Derby to the State Opening of Parliament, from her summer garden parties to her Christmas television broadcasts.
Yet her nation was changing at an extraordinary pace. The 1950s had brought affluence, TV and rock and roll; the 1960s were the decade of the satire boom, The Beatles, mini- skirts and hippies.
Most ordinary people, of course, remained strikingly conservative. Support for the monarchy was still very high and surveys found that more people dreamed about Elizabeth than about any other public figure or celebrity.
A poster for a Sex Pistols single is seen above in 1977. Many people predicted that 1977’s Silver Jubilee, which would mark 25 years of Elizabeth’s reign, would be a washout. Indeed, as late as that spring there were reports of street parties being cancelled for lack of interest, while local authorities were said to be making little effort. As it happened, the Jubilee was a triumph
Yet since life at the Palace had barely changed since her father’s day, some of her younger advisers, such as her new press secretary William Heseltine, thought modernisation was long overdue.
A good example was the Queen’s slow reaction to the disaster at Aberfan in October 1966, when a spoil tip collapsed on to a Welsh mining village and killed 144 people, most of them schoolchildren.
Wilson immediately rushed to the scene, as did Prince Philip. But Elizabeth stayed in London, insisting that she did not want to distract attention from the relief efforts. It was a rare misjudgment but it anticipated another, even more damaging display of passivity three decades later, after the death of Princess Diana.
On the occasion of Aberfan, Elizabeth did go to South Wales, albeit a week after the accident. As so often, her quiet, serious manner was exactly what was required. She talked to the villagers as a mother, not as a queen. Afterwards, a Mrs Williams, whose husband had lost seven relatives, told the Press the Queen was ‘the most charming person I have ever met. Really down to earth’.
This was exactly the reaction insiders like Heseltine wanted. And in 1968, keen to drag the monarchy into the present, he persuaded the Queen to allow in BBC and ITV cameras for a fly-on-the-wall documentary.
The result, televised in June 1969 as Royal Family, was one of the most watched programmes of all time, seen by a staggering 68 per cent of the population.
More than any other event of the Queen’s reign, this was the moment when the monarchy finally recognised the new power of the mass media. In the film’s most famous scene, the cameras even captured a family barbecue in the countryside near Balmoral.
Anne lights the barbecue. Philip grills sausages. And the Queen makes a salad, grinning at the Prince of Wales, who is whisking the dressing. It sounds anodyne but, at the time, it was a sensation. As the Tory MP and TV critic Julian Critchley remarked, it was astonishing to see a programme ‘devoted to the proposition that the Queen is a human being’.
For years the monarch had been presented as almost magical, as though floating above the humdrum realities of everyday life. Now the Queen had effectively admitted to her people that she was just like them. From that point on, there was no turning back.
When the Government increased the Civil List in line with inflation in 1975, Private Eye’s cover — ‘Windsor Woman In Massive £420,000 Pools Win’, above a picture of the Queen saying: ‘It will not change my way of life’ — showed how attitudes had changed
For the moment, though, the consequences were not entirely clear. Indeed, when Elizabeth visited Australia and New Zealand in 1970, her popularity seemed to have hit an all-time high.
For the first time, as part of her new informality, she and Philip strolled casually down streets, shaking hands with the crowds.
A Daily Mail reporter, Vincent Mulchrone, used the Australian word ‘walkabout’ to describe this, and a new royal ritual was born.
Back home, however, the storm clouds were gathering. And as Elizabeth approached her 50th year, the first critics stuck their heads above the parapet.
The turning point came in the early 1970s, when the Left-wing New Statesman led a strident campaign against a planned increase in the Civil List. For the first time in living memory, royal finances were the stuff of public debate: in Lambeth, Left-wing councillors took down a portrait of the Queen and hid it under the sofa. The sad truth was that in a new climate of aggressive disrespect, Elizabeth could no longer count on the deference her father had taken for granted.
When the Government increased the Civil List in line with inflation in 1975, Private Eye’s cover — ‘Windsor Woman In Massive £420,000 Pools Win’, above a picture of the Queen saying: ‘It will not change my way of life’ — showed how attitudes had changed.
And while Elizabeth was understandably proud of her daughter’s equestrian achievements, which won her the Sports Personality of the Year award in 1971, many ordinary people found Princess Anne’s manner prickly. The Princess, declared one Fleet Street columnist, was not merely ‘snappish’, she was ‘bloody rude’.
An even greater problem was the Queen’s sister Margaret, whose marriage to Lord Snowdon had hit the rocks. In March 1976, the Palace was forced to confirm that Margaret was separated from her husband. Two years later, they were divorced.
At the time, Harold Wilson assured Elizabeth that the news would be overshadowed by the reports of his shock resignation. In a nice homely touch, he had told her his plan while the Queen, wearing an apron, was washing up after tea at Balmoral.
Wilson was wrong. With newspapers hungry for celebrities and scandals, Margaret dominated the headlines for months, not least because her new lover, the strapping young gardener Roddy Llewellyn, seemed so gloriously inappropriate.
From this point on, the image of the House of Windsor as the ideal British family was irreparably tarnished, even though Elizabeth herself remained the model of consistency, duty and service.
Many people predicted that 1977’s Silver Jubilee, which would mark 25 years of Elizabeth’s reign, would be a washout. Indeed, as late as that spring there were reports of street parties being cancelled for lack of interest, while local authorities were said to be making little effort.
As it happened, the Jubilee was a triumph. The previous decade had not been kind to Britain, with the economy racked by devaluation, strikes and the humiliation of an IMF bailout. But ordinary people, it turned out, were desperate to find something to cheer.
Although it rained heavily on the big day, June 7, London was packed with crowds, many of them teenagers carrying banners and badges reading ‘Liz Rules OK’ and ‘Cool Rule Liz’. Across Britain there were thousands of street parties.
At one event in Stepney, ordinary working-class Londoners queued up to tell reporters why they were celebrating.
‘She’s a good queen,’ one woman said: ‘She’s Britain, yer know.’
‘I’m a monarchist myself,’ agreed another. ‘Always ‘ave been. Who’d want to live in a republic?’
To Elizabeth, the success of the Jubilee came as a welcome surprise. In middle age, as in her youth, she remained essentially a shy, serious, dedicated woman, with little conceit or vanity.
‘I am simply amazed,’ she told one of her ladies of the bedchamber, as she gazed out of Buckingham Palace at the vast crowds on the Mall. ‘I had no idea.’
Even her old critic John Grigg now admitted that, far from being a ‘pain in the neck’, her solid conservatism was her greatest asset. ‘Through fluctuating fashion and considerable moral disintegration,’ he observed, ‘she has lived up to her own high standards and has shown how much family life means to her, and has stood rock-firm for all it represents.’
Yet although Elizabeth herself held fast to the old-fashioned virtues she had learned as a child, her realm had changed almost beyond recognition.
At the beginning of her reign, Britain had ruled much of Africa, South-East Asia and parts of the Middle East. By the time of the Silver Jubilee, however, the Empire had disintegrated and, in 1973, Britain had become a member of the European Community, the ancestor of today’s EU.
Social change, meanwhile, was transforming the daily life of her people, from the rise of foreign holidays and ready meals to feminism and gay rights.
In May 1979, for the first time in British history, the Monarch found another woman beside her on the public stage. After yet more strikes, the public had turned to the Tory leader Margaret Thatcher.
Now Elizabeth had to get used to audiences with a fellow woman of decidedly robust opinions.
Of course she never spoke publicly about her relationship with Mrs Thatcher. But in the years that followed, courtiers often gossiped that their rapport was less than perfect — not least because, to Elizabeth’s horror, the new Prime Minister had little time for her beloved Commonwealth.
The relationship was ‘more businesslike than warm’, remarked one insider after the first couple of years.
This was an abrasive, aggressive age, in which the Queen’s quiet virtues were often overlooked. And a brutal lesson in the world’s new realities came in August 1979, when Elizabeth was told some of the worst news imaginable.
Her 79-year-old cousin Louis Mountbatten, a beloved mentor to her husband and eldest son, had gone to Ireland for a fishing trip. There, the IRA planted a bomb in his yacht, killing Mountbatten and two young boys — one of them his grandson.
Elizabeth was at Balmoral when she heard the news; it came, friends said, as a ‘devastating personal blow’.
Under the circumstances, it was all the more impressive that the Queen remained a great friend to Northern Ireland. Indeed, when she visited the Republic of Ireland for the first time in 2011 and talked of the ‘sad and regrettable’ record of Anglo-Irish history, all were struck by her magnanimity.
Her humility was ‘astonishing’, wrote one local commentator, especially given the pain of the loss of her cousin all those years before.
But to anyone who had closely followed her story, it was not astonishing at all.
Throughout her life, Elizabeth had always appealed for peace and friendship between nations, always turned the other cheek, and always put her nation above herself.
Little wonder, then, that she was so popular abroad. In all our history, Britain has never had a better ambassador.
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