The space between Queen Elizabeth II and the woman who has lived her life is not a big space. Since the age of ten she has known she was likely to become Queen. Since she was 25, she has been. Duty, routine, reading, ritual, have been her daily burden since 1952.
So the “Other Elizabeth”, a woman with her own views, memories, preferences and little habits, is only glimpsed occasionally. A good mimic, they say. Shrewdly observant. Careful with money. Impatient with slowcoaches. Doggy, of course. Horsey, of course.
She has been so present in the background of so many lives that millions of people must have had “Queen dreams”, imagining what she might say to them, unbuttoned, off duty. “But what’s she really like?” is the question that never goes away.
Making BBC films for her Diamond Jubilee, I found very many people – politicians, civil servants, friends of the family – talking at length about how witty the Queen is. But I noticed that when I asked for examples, they tended to tell me what they had said to her, before sitting back with a pleased beam.
I realised this would not be a straightforward assignment. Douglas Hurd pointed out how clever she was at nudging conversations that were becoming tricky onto a different track, with hardly anyone noticing.
Princes William and Harry
Even her family find her a little enigmatic, I think. Prince William put it well: “I think she doesn’t care for celebrity… and she really minds about having privacy in general. And I think it’s very important to be able to retreat inside and be able to collect one’s thoughts and collect your ideas… and then to move forwards.”
It was, “a very tricky line to draw between private and public and duty and I think she’s carved her own way completely. She’s not had a blueprint.”
She is also, of course, almost ludicrously busy. Having followed her, I can vouch for the cracking pace she and her 90-year-old husband set as they plunge into walkabouts, or face another forest of outstretched hands and eager faces.
Prince Harry reflects on her ability to turn up, still smiling, at places she might not want to be: “These are the things that, at her age, she shouldn’t be doing, yet she’s carrying on and doing them,” he said in an interview just before the Duke’s heart operation at Christmas.
“Regardless of whether my grandfather seems to be doing his own thing, sort of wandering off like a fish down the river, the fact that he’s there – personally, I don’t think that she could do it without him, especially when they’re both at this age.”
And there is a question about whether the state requires a little too much now of the Queen, at 85 our oldest as well as our second longest-serving monarch. I followed her – at a decent distance – on visits around Britain, barely reported in the national media, where she questioned sheep farmers or nurses, inspected stalls and shops, met endless civic dignitaries, Gurkhas on their way to Afghanistan and regiments of school choirs.
She knew what was going on, and it was interesting to watch her watching. I don’t think she misses a trick. Late on in the process I half-jokingly apologised for stalking her. She replied she’d noticed – but it had been a good, interesting time, hadn’t it?
It certainly had been: it included the Royal wedding, the historic visit of reconciliation to the Irish Republic, a trip to the vastly wealthy Gulf states Britain now relies on so much, the long tour of Australia, always tipped to be on the edge of republicanism, a speech at the UN in New York, Barack Obama’s second arrival at Buckingham Palace and the first-ever state visit of a Pope, never mind the election of a coalition government and the aftermath of the banking crisis. And those were only some of the headlines.
Remember that this woman, then aged 84, was also bestowing honours, attending services and hot, evening receptions at the Palace. Day in, day out, she was sitting at her desk for the arrival of yet another fat red box of official paperwork to read, something she does every day of the year except Christmas.
It is an astonishing workload. I used to follow political leaders around for a living (a strange kind of living) but early on, I noticed that Team Queen – the press officers, minders and others – work more economically, and harder, than I was used to. It’s mini-vans and bed and breakfasts, not limos and grand hotels.
There is, of course, an aura of respect and seriousness, though it is not overdone – her Cockney police refer to her, for instance, as “the Baked Bean”. When a dress designer arrived from Scotland, determined to measure her in person, she entered cheerfully into the spirit of it, sticking out her limbs – “leg out!” – “arm out!”
There’s a lot of laughter. One of her Ladies in Waiting told me, as they entered another civic hall to shrill cheering: “We’re in the happiness business.”
Yet of course at the heart of the job is the political role of head of state, which means not only the secret paperwork, including security services reports, and grand public events like the State Opening of Parliament, but also those near- weekly and entirely private audiences with her prime ministers. I wanted to know, do these – and the rest of the Queen’s public role – really make a difference?
Her 12th prime minister, David Cameron, told me: “She’s seen and heard it all, but I think she wants to be in a position where she knows everything that’s going on… she asks you well-informed and brilliant questions that make you think about the things you’re doing.”
So did that make him do his job better? “I think you reveal both to her, but also to yourself, your deepest thinking and deepest worries… and sometimes that can really help you reach the answers.”
This sounds much more pointed and hard-edged than the slightly fluffy, ritual conversations we might expect from earlier political memoirs. And Tony Blair agrees: “She keeps her ear very much to the ground… though conventionally it’s supposed to be prime ministers briefing the Queen, I found it a genuine exchange… She had a very clear and shrewd sense of where people would be on political issues.”
There was nobody, he added, “who has a better idea of crisis, what it’s like, how it is, and how it also doesn’t go on forever.” He had often talked to her “about the past, about previous prime ministers, what it was like, how they handled things. And she was prepared within the context of the audience to be very frank and open and informative.”
Blair also, by the way, scotched the story that it was his office who wrote the “As your Queen and as a grandmother” speech she made after Diana’s death: “Those words and that language were her own… absolutely not written by New Labour, no – and the very personal touch was actually hers.”
Following her is also a lesson in the remorseless demands of a modern state. Her visit to Abu Dhabi and Oman was dictated by the desperation of ministers to drum up more investment from one of the richest parts of the world, and to talk about the Iranian threat across the Straits of Hormuz.
Her tribute to the firefighters who fell at Ground Zero in New York produced a wave of emotional coverage in the USA. Australian republicanism took a heavy knock after her triumphant tour there.
She has found a personal chemistry with the Obamas that is both real and useful. And in Ireland she “closed the circle” of a bloody history, as the Taoiseach Enda Kenny put it, in a way no other British person could.
Listening to her grandsons, and her other grandchildren, it is clear they think of her above all as a wise woman, awe-inspiring, never to be taken for granted, but always there for help and advice.
It is remarkably similar to the way her prime ministers talk about her too, these days. She is instinctively private. She is not a celebrity. She has a sense of duty many of us forgot long ago, and badly need to recover.
The woman who is the Queen, and “the Queen” have become the same thing; and that may be her final triumph.
There will never be another monarch remotely like this one – who has seen so much, from world war and the age of Khrushchev and Truman, through the terrors of the Cold War and the turbulent social revolutions of the last century. It may well be true that, to her, today’s crises don’t seem quite so daunting.
One day she won’t be with us any more, and there will be a Queen-sized hole. What’s the point of a Diamond Jubilee? Well maybe, we have been taking the Queen a little for granted; and maybe, after 60 years, it’s time we stopped.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 31 January 2012.
Three-part series The Diamond Queen begins tonight at 9pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD