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Interview: Robert Lacey, British historian and biographer -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Robert Lacey is a British historian and biographer and a royal commentator for ABC America. For the past four decades he's written extensively about Queen Elizabeth II, including the bestselling biography Majesty and he joins us now from London.

Robert Lacey, many thanks for joining us.


EMMA ALBERICI: A YouGov poll for The Sunday Times declared Queen Elizabeth II the greatest UK monarch. On what basis is that judgment made?

ROBERT LACEY: I think it's made on a bit of excess euphoria. I think on the basis of that very good report you've just made, there's a sense of history, you know. She's getting - all the adulation she's getting at the moment comes from our own feelings that we were there - you know, the death of Diana, the annus horribilus and so on. I honestly think in years to come that will be considered exaggerated. Elizabeth I was clearly a greater monarch than Elizabeth II. She was an executive. She was - she steered Britain - England then of course, through some really difficult times. But this - none of this is to diminish the achievement of Elizabeth II because the second Elizabethan age required different challenges. And her rather quiet, bland refusal to commit herself, to be the very opposite of Elizabeth I, if you like, has actually, I think, been right for these times.

EMMA ALBERICI: Do you think - when she ascended the throne in 1952 at the tender age of 25 - of course, not to forget that Victoria I think was 18 - but when she - when she sort of came into the public focus like that, do you think she made a deliberate attempt to change the direction of the monarchy to give it that more kind of bland focus, as you say?

ROBERT LACEY: No, because - let's use the word bland one last time because it's not quite fair to her. She was taking over from her grandfather George V and George VI, who'd steered Britain through the difficult times of two world wars, the disappearance of monarchies all over Europe and it's only really in recent years that she's actually changed. You know, you'd never have guessed at the beginning of the reign that you would see her jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond as at the beginning of the Olympics. She's shown rather a wry sense of humour as she's got older. I think a lot of that is actually to do with the disappearance of the rather grand royal ladies who overshadowed her - her mother, the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and then Diana. It's really only with their disappearance that she's finally come into her own and we're all enjoying it now.

EMMA ALBERICI: Historian David Starkey has painted her as a fairly insignificant historical figure, saying she's done nothing anybody will remember. Is that too harsh?

ROBERT LACEY: It is too harsh, but that's the way David is. I mean, I think he also called her Elizabeth the Silent. Well that's been her job. Let's take off a few of her achievements. The greatest one was referred to in your report, the really creation of the Commonwealth, we can say. There's no other empire in the world that has changed in the way that the British Commonwealth of Nations has evolved. We have our dysfunctions, as all healthy families do, but that is very much her own achievement. You know, there've been prime ministers of Britain - Margaret Thatcher, one thinks of, Edward Heath - Australian leaders too who haven't had much time for the Commonwealth. She's seen the value of it - economic value, historical, social value. Her particular personal role in the reconciliation in Ireland and Northern Ireland. 30 years ago, there were bombs on the streets of Britain here. It was the politicians again who did the spadework, but the symbolism that healed the rift finally, or we hope has healed the rift finally, comes from this symbolic woman. She has proved that smiling, doing her duty is more than just an empty gesture. It can achieve things like the Commonwealth fellowship and like the reconciliation that we have with Ireland and Northern Ireland.

EMMA ALBERICI: Where Victoria oversaw an empire though measuring a quarter of the globe and some 400 million people, Elizabeth II is the head of state of the UK and only 15 Commonwealth countries now with a combined population of only about 139 million people. Doesn't that indicate a kind of monarchy in decline rather than in its ascendance?

ROBERT LACEY: Well it certainly indicates changing times and I wouldn't be surprised if Australia and New Zealand go their own way after she's gone. We already hear that Jamaica, Barbados, some smaller countries, wish to sever their connections with her as head of state even in her lifetime. But I think the Commonwealth will survive, and as I say, I think that's very much to her credit and her personal achievement.

EMMA ALBERICI: Is symbolism enough of an achievement in and of itself though really, given the cost of the monarchy to the British economy?

ROBERT LACEY: Well, the cost of the monarchy by every measure is very small. What is it? £40, £50 million a year to the taxpayer. There are 60 million - 60 million people living in Britain - more than that now and likely to be more with what's happening. So that's less than a pound per head per year and that's a litre of milk and you just go out here and you look at the millions of people who come to Britain every year to get the magic of Buckingham Palace because she and the Royal Family are there. No, I think she's an economic plus and also heads of state in any country in the world cost a fortune, and she, with her rather modest tastes, switching off the lights in Buckingham Palace every night, actually sets rather a good example to everybody. And I wouldn't think we should underrate the symbolism of doing your duty, a sincere and profound Christian faith, sticking to impartiality and trying to see both sides of the issue. As we live in a world dominated by celebs and politicians who shoot off their mouth on every occasion, I think this quiet, modest, hardworking grandmother - well great-grandmother now, deserves all the plaudits that she's getting.

EMMA ALBERICI: Do you see when you look at her descendants now anyone you believe who will share the kind of affection globally that she's managed to attract to that role?

ROBERT LACEY: I doubt it. Certainly not with Prince Charles. With Prince Charles, we're gonna have a very interventionist monarchy, a man who believes that he can use his power more dynamically than his mother. So far, it's been more successful than people thought. But he's not obviously gonna be around very long. I think with William, we'll see a return to blandness and family life and a quiet life. And who can tell how that's going to work? Monarchy is only as good as the person doing the job. One can speculate about the future, but I think when you look at history and look at what she's achieved and what she's survived through, when lots of other things haven't survived, she deserves the plaudits she's going to get on Wednesday.

EMMA ALBERICI: Robert Lacey, it was a great pleasure to speak to you. Thank you.

ROBERT LACEY: Thank you, Emma.