What Does the Queen Do?

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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II during her walkabout in Guildford High Street

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The Queen has also subtly refurbished the most public aspect of her work — her interaction with ordinary people. She has never been naturally extroverted, perhaps a reaction to growing up so famous that as a child she had a territory named after her in Antarctica and was immortalized in Madame Tussaud's astride a pony. Her early friend and bridesmaid Pamela Hicks noted the unrelenting press of "intimate strangers" always peering in alongside motorcades. But over the years the Queen has learned to make encounters more enjoyable — and memorable. When she grants honors, she studies biographies of each recipient and writes down a few words which an aide reads to her as the person approaches, allowing her to start an informed conversation — one she knows will be repeated to family and friends. (She reads fast and has a flypaper memory.) Dinners during regional trips used to strand her at the top of a long table with predictable dignitaries; now she will be at a round table with perhaps a nurse, the leader of the local Sikh temple and an entrepreneur. Parties at Buckingham Palace are increasingly built around themes, like honoring transport workers and members of the emergency services after the London bombings of July 2005. She has aligned the palace with the modern world in other barely perceptible steps: relaxing the rules for the 30,000 invitees to her garden parties so that men needn't spend money on a morning suit, and chucking out the old rule that restricted state banquets to married apparent heterosexuals. Malcolm Ross, a kind of chief of protocol in the Lord Chamberlain's Office for 14 years, says the Queen takes a seriously pragmatic approach to ceremony: "Ceremony is meaningful only if it is relevant. It must make sense."

What does the Queen herself have to do with these changes? Does she benignly preside while staffers take the initiative, or is she a hands-on manager? Her staff say that she is almost spookily well-informed and observant. "Her memory of detail, her instinct for what is right, is absolutely superb," says Ross. Hunka, the personnel chief, says "she's obviously not immersed in the details of employment legislation, but whenever an issue gets to her, her feedback is never against what I would say as an experienced human resources person. She's always on the beam; it's uncanny." Prince Andrew says, in some awe, "Here's a quote you can have. The Queen's intelligence network is a hell of a lot better than anyone's in this palace. Bar none. She knows everything. Everything. She just knows. I don't know how she does it." The Queen will spot tiny errors in memos, and approves details as small as bedroom assignments and whether a photographer may stand in a corner at a state banquet. She doesn't usually get cross. "Do you really think so?" is usually enough to signal staff they are proceeding down a dead end. But as for changing the fundamental ways the palace works, she sticks with her instinctive pattern and mostly waits for suggestions. Her biographer Lacey calls her "not an innovator, but a sensitive responder, and she is very well advised. Successful monarchs are great listeners."

She is a consistently popular boss — which has not always been true for all members of the royal family. "There's a lot of esprit de corps here," says Ross. "People stay a long time, and they don't get rich. It's because she's wonderful to work for. You cannot bluff, you cannot pull the wool over her eyes. You get clear direction, never ambiguous, and once a decision is made, it's not changed. The hardest thing about the job is ever letting her down." Hunka says the palace "is almost without politics. I never have to write a memo to cover myself. There's no top job to compete for, and no revolving door of CEOs you have to please." Reid, who climbed to the top of KPMG, calls the Queen "the best person I've ever worked for. She lets you get on with the job, but she and her husband see things with great clarity. Sometimes we look at every conceivable angle; she'll just cut through it all."

And what does she make of it? Does she like her job? Does she never tire of the grind, the rigid code of behavior, the deluge of small talk? Her diaries, carefully tended, may give the answer, but they will not be seen until after her death. She once said she would have liked to be a woman living in the country with lots of horses and dogs. Even today, one of her greatest pleasures is owning racehorses and nipping out to watch the 2:35 at Cheltenham on TV. Most likely, the concept of liking her job would seem odd to her. Prince Andrew explains: "People say to me, 'Your life must be very strange.' But of course I've not experienced any other life. It's not strange to me. The same way with the Queen. She has never experienced anything else. That life, that knowledge, that wisdom is purely natural to her." Pamela Hicks agrees that the Queen, while gratified if people respond to her work, does not seek a conventional sense of happiness in it. Duty is its own reward: "She is very religious, but she is also philosophical. She feels she must do the job she has been given and that it will be for others to judge whether she has succeeded."

She is naturally curious about people, and observant; this, "plus her fantastic memory, means she is not bored," says Hicks. A dry sense of humor helps. On a walkabout in Scotland, one person told her, "You look just like the Queen!" "How reassuring," she replied. When a visiting head of state managed to slip out of Buckingham Palace overnight, she quipped: "Has he taken his wife?" She can laugh at herself too, as when a new footman pulled back her chair as she stood up after a family dinner, but then immediately went to sit down again to continue a conversation and hit the floor. The whole family found this uproarious (but she also made sure to reassure the mortified footman).

As a child she was upbraided for saying something as racy as "my goodness." But "she's very modern," says Reid. "People don't realize it. Some people who work for her don't." Her granddaughter Zara Phillips has had a tongue stud, lived in sin with a jockey, posed for Hello! magazine and sold the rights, but the Queen is very fond of her. The monarch who said in 1955 (following the government's decision) that her sister, Margaret, could not remain a royal princess if she married a divorced man has had no qualms about her grandson William living with his girlfriend. A senior aide says she is fundamentally an optimist, "a glass-half-full" kind of person, who would endeavor to do a good job even if she did not like the country Britain had become — but "she is very comfortable with modern Britain." One thing she definitely dislikes: people who come to see her when they have colds. She does not want the people depending on her, in a program arranged six months in advance, to get messed around by her having to stay in bed.

If she lives as long as her mother, she will preside until 2027. "She is incredibly fit and agile," says Andrew. Watching her hustle down a corridor to a meeting in an electric aqua dress, a rolling mass of corgis and dorgis in tow, she exudes surprising energy. In the country, she rides (helmetless) or walks the hills every day. Her staff is organizing her schedule to keep her visible and active with less strain by hosting more events at Buckingham Palace, and when she travels, seeing more people at slightly fewer venues. Her children will pick up more of her duties. But all who know her say that barring physical collapse, she will not abdicate in favor of Charles.

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