Andrew Vine: The Queen and the abiding influence of ‘Grandpa England’

Photo by Everett/REX/Shutterstock (775183a) British Royal Family. From left: British King George V, Future Countess of Snowdon Princess Margaret, Gerald Lascelles, Earl of Harewood Henry Lascelles, Future British Queen Princess Elizabeth, British Queen Mary of Teck, after Jubilee Thanksgiving services, Buckingham Palace, London, England, May 6, 1935.
Photo by Everett/REX/Shutterstock (775183a) British Royal Family. From left: British King George V, Future Countess of Snowdon Princess Margaret, Gerald Lascelles, Earl of Harewood Henry Lascelles, Future British Queen Princess Elizabeth, British Queen Mary of Teck, after Jubilee Thanksgiving services, Buckingham Palace, London, England, May 6, 1935.
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TO the young Princess Elizabeth, he was “Grandpa England” and he spent as much time with her as his duties allowed because she so delighted him.

The Queen might have cast her mind back to those long-distant days this week, which marked the 80th anniversary of the death of her grandfather, George V, and reflected on the striking parallels between his reign and her own.

She was not quite 10 when he died on January 20 1936, aged 70, after almost 26 years on the throne.

And as she approaches her 90th birthday in April as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, it is clear that the model George set for the Royal Family has been a cornerstone of her enduring popularity. The Queen’s rapport with her people has been based on his example, and her shrewdness in affairs of state mirrors his.

The turbulent years of George’s reign sound echoes in those that the Queen has witnessed, both in politics and social changes.

Her grandfather was a prescient man, foreseeing the threat of Nazi Germany long before most of the Establishment, and even predicting the turmoil brought about by his heir, Edward VIII.

He was an innovator, too, embracing technology to forge a closer and more personal bond with his subjects.

Yet George V’s memory has been undeservedly neglected by the public, obscured by the longevity of the Queen and by the affection in which her father, George VI, was held thanks to his steadfastness during the Second World War.

In contrast, George V looms out of the past as much a caricature as a character, a blimpish, irascible figure with his twin passions for game-shooting and stamp-collecting glaring sternly out of black-and-white photographs.

Irascible and stern he certainly was, with his mania for punctuality and habit of barking at any gentleman who committed what he considered the unforgivable indignity of being seen in public without a hat.

Some of the most vivid recollections of him come from his first-born grandchild, the late 7th Earl of Harewood, who wrote the King “found it so easy to find fault with anyone that what was probably a basic kindness was quite lost in his gruff exterior, added to which the ritual good morning and good night peck had to be offered to a beard of astonishing abrasiveness”.

Yet this was the same King that astonished his Archbishop of Canterbury, Arthur Foley Winnington-Ingram, who arrived for an audience to find him crawling about on all fours entertaining Lilibet, as the young Elizabeth was known.

Her father’s reign was as surely guided by George’s example as hers has been.

George VI – Bertie, to his family – became increasingly close to his father towards the end of his life, when the old King had come to hope he and Lilibet would be the future.

His influence on the Queen is most clearly seen in her relationship with the public. George turned his back on the political meddlings of his father, Edward VII, and grandmother, Victoria, instead placing the emphasis on a much closer rapport with his subjects.

The horrors of the First World War saw him tour the country and its military camps, developing the same bond with the public that would characterise his son a generation later.

And George’s shrewd grasp of what Britain wanted from its monarchy came to the fore in the midst of the war when, in 1917, he changed the name of the royal house from the uncomfortably Germanic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the House of Windsor.

It was an audacious rethink of the Royal Family’s image and relationship with the country, just as 80 years later, the Queen had to rethink after public disillusionment with the monarchy following the death of Princess Diana.

And if she needed an example of the need for the Royal Family to hold its nerve in difficult times, she had only to think of George’s worries as the war ended and royal houses toppled all over Europe that Britain might go the same way. Then, as now, the respect and affection in which the monarch was held got the institution through difficult times.

Just as her grandfather saw a coalition government during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, so the Queen saw another after the financial crisis of 2008.

Just as he heard the clamour of Irish nationalism, so she heard the clamour for Scottish independence.

The parallels between grandfather and grand-daughter also extend to their understanding of the public.

In the midst of the general strike of 1926, George issued a sharp rebuke to the Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, who wanted to take a hard line with the strikers, telling him: “Try living on their wages before you judge them.”

And it was George’s instinctive feel for his people that led him to use the then-young medium of radio to make the first royal Christmas broadcast, in 1932.

It is easily found on the internet, and George’s tone is exactly that of the Queen’s broadcast every Christmas. Formal, but warm and sincere, that crackly three-minute recording set a template that continues to be followed.

The shadows, though, were gathering both in his own family and across Europe. George foresaw the menace of Hitler in 1934, when substantial sections of the Establishment were praising what seemed to be his economic miracle, telling the German ambassador that his country was “the peril of the world” and risked a war within 10 years.

He was right, just as he was about his heir, the vain and foolish Edward VIII. A year before his death, George said: “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself within 12 months.”

Eleven months after George’s death, Edward abdicated.

George said something else as he agonised over his heir. “I pray to God my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.”

He got his wish. Eighty years after George’s death, and as she prepares to celebrate another milestone in her extraordinary reign, the example of the Queen’s beloved “Grandpa England” continues to be a guiding light.