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Book Report: King George the Fifth; his life and reign

Gentle Readers may remember that Your Humble Blogger is frequently on about Harold Nicolson. I recently picked up Juliet Nicolson’s book The Perfect Summer, largely on the strength of the family name. One of the events of that summer that draws Ms. Nicolson’s focus is the coronation of George V (of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Emperor of India and the Dominions). I was inevitably reminded that her grandfather had been commissioned to write the official biography of George V, and that I had never read it. So, off to the library and it was in my hands.

Now, the Crown actually commissioned two biographers, a John Gore to write a personal biography, and Harold Nicolson to write a political biography. I’m not sure that’s the right term, since of course the King was not a politician in the usual sense, and in fact was required to avoid party politics, political intrigue or even the public expression of policy preferences. Still, he was involved in all the significant political battles of his reign, if only because he was the King. And, in fact, the primary focus of the book is the way that George V made the transition from his grandmother’s monarchy to his granddaughter’s monarchy; he maneuvers through several constitutional crises, and constitutional crises are particularly tricky in England, where they don’t have a written constitution.

There’s the bit in his first year, where the Prime Minister eliminates the power of the House of Lords to block legislation for more than a couple of years. Then there’s the Irish Question, and then there’s the war. Some of his cousins are allied monarchs and some are enemy monarchs. And some are overthrown and killed. And then war with Ireland, and war within Ireland, and the place of the Crown in Ireland. And a Labour Government. Strikes. Questions about the place of the crown in the Dominions, particularly India, of course, but also South Africa and Canada. The near failure of the Bank of England and a worldwide Depression.

By the way, for people (such as YHB) who tend to fall into vacant admiration of the parliamentary system of government, highlighting in comparison to our presidential system its nimbleness in responding to a lack of confidence in its Executive, it’s unsurprisingly a disillusionment to read about the way it actually works. Specifically, in response to the Depression and the moneylenders (American, mostly) insisting on budget cuts and reduction of unemployment and pension outlays rather than raising revenues, the Labour Prime Minister winds up dismissing his Labour Cabinet (which refuses, quite reasonably to enact policies that are the exact opposite of both their campaign promises and their principles) and becoming Prime Minister of a so-called National Government, which is effectively a Conservative government enacting Conservative policies but fronted by a Labour politician. Hard to see that as an improvement over our need to wait until four years have passed to change Executives.

But I digress, at least a little. The book is fascinating and entertaining. Harold Nicolson has a dry and wicked sense of humor, which he mostly keeps under control but which does peek through here and there. He also has an social insight into the worlds of the civil service, politics and even journalism and propaganda that allow him to judiciously show us some of the pressures and (perhaps more important) habits that shape the public events. Mostly, though, there were a succession of fascinating situations, described engagingly, that led me to want to pass along one after another anecdote to whatever poor victim happened to be nearby.

Here’s one I loved: in the twenties, a Labour government is elected for the first time, and the relations with the Monarchy are in question. Much of the Labour Party are confirmed republicans, and many more are reverse snobs. The Prime Minister and the Cabinet are able to work well with the sovereign, but odd little things do come up. For instance… one of the perks of office is the ability to appoint a dozen or so people to the Royal Household; these patronage positions are lovely little gifts that the P.M. can give to supporters who aren’t going to get positions of actual power. When Ramsey Macdonald comes into power, though, he doesn’t have a bunch of supporters who will fulfill their life’s ambitions by being Captain of the Household Cavalry or Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen. In fact, the entire idea of such patronage is dirty to Labour, and Mr. Macdonald suggests that the positions be removed from political appointment and made permanent positions, essentially in the civil service. The King, without actually influencing policy directly, is able to hint that it would be difficult for him if such a change were made by one government and then reversed after the next election, and that perhaps the other Parties could be consulted. Eventually, negotiations result in reducing the patronage to half-a-dozen positions, which Labour then has to try to fill.


Although the duties of these positions are purely ceremonial, they are ceremonial, and they require the purchase of uniform costumes for ceremonial occasions. The knee breeches and wigs and such are simply Not Going to Happen with Labour; the King agrees to a more modern look, but insists on one choice, with a complete set of whatever it will be, and everyone wearing it, and it looking good. Partially, this is his Royal (and Naval) quirk of obsessing about matters of dress, but partially, it’s the very real understanding of the monarch’s purpose and the way it works. Anyway, the Prime Minister is able, eventually to get half-a-dozen people who are willing to accept the position, but who won’t and can’t lay out seventy-five pounds of their own money for the costume. So. His Majesty causes a note to be sent from his private secretary, Lord Somethingorother, to the Prime Minister, saying that it has come to the attention of the Crown that the firm of Moss Brothers has several complete secondhand sets of Levee outfits in good condition, complete with jacket, trousers, cocked hat, sword, and everything, for only twenty pounds.

I am convinced that Harold Nicolson believed that the Household had, in fact, paid for the outfits to be made and then placed with Moss Brothers; I find it difficult to believe that without that interference, those suits would have been there, or that the Household would have known about it. Of course, it would have been wildly inappropriate for the Crown to have given the appointees their outfits, both as a precedent and as an affront to the Labour Party. But there are ways.

Whether Mr. Nicolson was hinting at that or not, it’s a delightful little episode, and for a delightful little episode contains a surprising amount of information and intimation about the workings of politics and the monarchy at that time. There are many such episodes, some of them less delightful, some of them less little, but almost all of them fascinating and revealing. I went in to the book admiring Harold Nicolson, and came out of it admiring him even more. In fact, for all that I’ve been on about Mr. Nicolson for years, his books have been a (slight) disappointment to me. Some People didn’t knock me out, his other biographies were aggravating in various ways. His most successful books, of course, were the ones he wasn’t writing on purpose; his diaries and letters. But this book seems to me a major success. Not the final word on George V by any means, but a completely successful elaboration of his life.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Speaking of admiration for the Parliamentary system, I presume you have seen the old BBC show "Yes Minister"? It's hysterical but it does play up some of the serious weaknesses in the system and its capacity for manipulation. Even worse is one the hubby refers to as "How the Grinch stole England" and I'll have to get the right name for you--it's a more recent show than Yes Minister and much darker humor, about a minister who angles his way up to prime minister, deposes the throne, etc. But it shows how the system can be manipulated in ways you can't do in a more fully elected system (even given as we are to manipulation and being bought ;).

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