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Response to Review of Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government, and the Postwar Commonwealth

I would like to begin by thanking Ruth for producing such a detailed and generous review of my book. I’m delighted that she has found so much to praise, and the three caveats she raises towards the end strike me as perfectly fair. They certainly point to the fact that a great deal of further work is necessary in order to do justice to this topic. To take her final point first, I would defend the approach I adopted, while fully recognising its limitations. The lack of a broad study of Britain’s post-war colonial and foreign policy in the context of the monarchy’s Commonwealth-wide roles has been an obvious gap in the literature on decolonization, and I hope that my book goes some way to filling it. In practical terms, this fairly narrow focus on the relationship of the British government and the Palace made the book feasible as a single-author study. But more importantly, it enabled me to pursue a clear, over-arching argument: namely (and perhaps counter-intuitively) that monarchy’s pivotal position within the modern Commonwealth – in terms both of the headship and the Realms – was frequently a source of frustration for those responsible for directing British foreign policy. The Realms in particular were a recipe for confusion and misunderstanding, and it was unsurprising that transitions to republican status were often greeted with a sigh of relief within the Foreign Office. Furthermore, although constitutional orthodoxy dictates that the Queen is equally and separately sovereign of each of her Realms, the relationship between the Palace and the British government is uniquely close. When the Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, visited Windsor Castle in 1973 to discuss with the Queen a number of issues touching on his country’s relationship with the Crown, her private secretary secretly passed a record of their conversations to the Foreign Office. It seems highly unlikely that the Palace was providing Canberra with similar accounts of the Queen’s conversations with Edward Heath.

There is certainly, as Ruth notes, the need for a properly comparative study of the Queen’s relationship with the governments of all her Realms and of the non-monarchical members of the Commonwealth, telling the story from their very different perspectives. This will probably have to be in the form of a generously-funded collaborative research project. Given, however, the wide variety restrictions on access to documents across these countries, and the fact the papers in the Royal Archives on the current reign will remain closed during the Queen’s lifetime, it may be some time before the archival resources are available for a really definitive study. The Palace remains deeply wedded to secrecy, and it seems unlikely that the advent of a new monarch will be accompanied by any immediate embrace of the principle of ‘Glasnost’.

Ruth’s suggestion that more reference could have been made in the main text of the book to the illustrations is very well taken. I must confess to having gathered the photographs and cartoons together rather late in the day – just as the book was going into production. This material was something of a revelation to a self-confessed and hitherto unapologetic ‘archive rat’. Steve Bell’s characteristically brilliant cartoon of the Queen ‘honouring’ Nelson Mandela during her visit to South Africa in 1995 is a particular favourite of mine, and deserved a far more sustained commentary than I had the chance to insert in the text at copy editing stage. It would have been tempting to claw the manuscript back from the publishers and revise it more fully. By that stage, however, I was in a race against time to publish the book by the REF deadline (something I only managed by the skin of my teeth, thanks in no small part to the refreshingly ‘can-do’ attitude of Emma Barber, my production editor at OUP). If I have the opportunity to rectify this in subsequent editions of the book, I will certainly do so. But, yes; the book would have benefited from a greater use of visual evidence, and might also (in a separate point raised by Ruth) have paid greater attention to popular attitudes to the monarchy in the UK and across the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, I very much hope that, for all its shortcomings, it will help to encourage scholars both to address these and other ‘missing dimensions’, and to challenge the sorts of official secrecy that currently hinder the writing of conventional political history about monarchy in the post-war world. While I think the book does break new ground there is, as Ruth quite rightly suggests, a great deal more to be said on this subject.