It is all too easy to conclude from adverse comments in the press that there is little merit in keeping the monarchy. The royals are often portrayed as incompetent, corrupt and extravagant, but a recent article in The Times pointed out that the Queen’s contribution over her long reign must be worth £50 billion.
The author begins by pointing out that ‘while monarchy is mainly a conservative force, helping to maintain stability, this very fundamental stability enables the country to absorb more radical changes in its political and social structure than would otherwise be possible without the risk of disorder’.
This is a very readable account of some of the innovations introduced by monarchs and their consorts over the centuries. Some of these have become so much part of the fabric of the nation, that we take them for granted, forgetting that they were often introduced despite opposition and derision.
The Great Exhibition of 1851, for example, which was the brainchild of Prince Albert, was more than just a huge shop window for British goods, a mere glorification of the new Machine Age. It was an expression of his hope that man might use his new techniques to create a better world. Parliament contemptuously turned down the project leaving him with the enormous task of getting enough backers to finance it. His faith was justified and the Exhibition was a huge success.
In the Albert Memorial he is depicted sitting with the exhibition catalogue on his knees, looking south at the Albert Hall built on land bought from the profits of the event. He also gazes further south at the cluster of fine museums begun at his wish from those profits. The Victoria and Albert, Natural History and Science Museums are now national institutions, but few remember the vision that gave rise to them. The land under Imperial College is also part of that purchase.
The author deals with the monarchs before Queen Victoria in outline, but devotes a whole chapter to each of the subsequent reigns.
Charles Neilson Gattey succeeded C.P.Snow as president of the Society of Civil Service Authors in 1980. Born in London and educated there and in France, he is descended on his mother’s side from John Neilson, a close friend of George Washington, and a member of the Continental Congress which drew up the historic Declaration of Independence. Also on her side he is descended from the Spanish statesman and playwright Martinez de la Rosa.
Gattey, also a successful playwright, is the author of seven published biographies. Of the first, A Bird of Curious Plumage, a reviewer wrote: ‘It is a tribute not only to his nose for astonishing characters, but to a scholarship which can only be described as monumental. It should establish his reputation as a serious but never stodgy historian’. A reviewer of his Queens of Song wrote ‘This excellent book will delight readers. It is sensible, factual, highly readable, does not neglect anecdotes and is well proportioned’.