During the reign of George V from May 1910 to January 1936, five emperors, eight kings and eighteen minor dynasties, disappeared in Europe. But Britain's monarchy endured. History is often viewed as a progress from darkness to light. Kings and queens represent old methods of government, while democracy and Parliament, represent the new. In the modern age monarchy is seen as a quaint throwback, an outdated institution which has survived in Britain only because of a twist of fate. In the opinion of Norman Davies in The Isles, for example, the fact that Britain escaped recent revolution or invasion explains the endurance of monarchy. Modern monarchs are then dismissed as meaningless and marginal figures. A.N. Wilson in After the Victorians describes George V briefly as a shy and awkward man, who lived through years of ceremony and routine, spending his time shooting, stamp collecting, and being fastidious about clothes and uniforms. When I went to the County Library to find Harold Nicolson's biography of George V, I found that it was kept in storage and had not been taken out by anyone for at least five years. Even though I didn't hold out much hope for thousands of people consulting my proposed page on George V, I took the fat biography home, expecting six hundred pages of stamp collecting, shooting parties and details of uniforms. Instead I read a fascinating story of a man who stood as a symbolic and actual anchor through an age of chaos and change. It was not the story I was expecting, and indicates how perceptions of neat development can obscure our view of history.
Prince George was born at Marlborough House, London, on the morning of June 3rd 1865, second son of Edward, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Alexandra. George was raised mainly at Edward's estate of Sandringham in north Norfolk, and his boyhood was "boisterously happy" (George V: His Life and Reign by Harold Nicolson P5). Not that George ran riot. His tutor John Neale Dalton was a punctilious man who liked order and tried to instill it into George and his older brother Prince Edward. But the boys and their tutor got on well, and were to be life long friends. Life took a more difficult turn in 1877 when the boys were sent off to join the naval training ship Britannia at Dartmouth, Devon. Here the two princes were shown no quarter by their fellow naval cadets. George, who was small for his age, was regularly beaten up by the older boys, and his pocket money stolen. Of the pocket money George was later to write: "I suppose they thought that there was plenty more where that came from, but in point of fact we were only given a shilling a week pocket money, so it meant a lot to me, I can tell you" (quoted Nicolson P15).
George survived these hard years on Britannia, and in July 1879 he passed into the Royal Navy, immediately undertaking a three year tour of duty around the world, followed by other postings which were to see his naval career continuing until 1892. Then life was to change abruptly, when George's elder brother Edward died of pneumonia at Sandringham. This traumatic event left George heir to the throne. George now set about organising himself for his new life. He took up a seat in the House of Lords, and started to attend debates in Parliament. Rather bizarrely he was also obliged to propose marriage to Mary of Teck, who had been his brother's intended bride before he died. The wedding took place on July 6th 1893 at the Chapel Royal, St James's Palace. George then settled into a period of waiting for the throne through the reign of his father Edward VII. Through these years society was to change profoundly, with shifts reaching a critical juncture in 1905 - 1906. On 8th January 1906 Parliament was dissolved and an election held. This dramatic election saw the return of fifty three Labour MPs. Former Conservative Party leader Arthur Balfour lost his seat in East Manchester, and commented that the election of 1906 had inaugurated a new era. And yet even in this new age when working men could become MPs and take power in government, the position of monarchy in Britain was not weakened. It could be assumed that the Labour Party would be hostile to the wealth and privilege of monarchy, but this was not generally so. In 1923 the Labour Conference rejected by 3,694,000 votes to 386,000 the motion "is republicanism the policy of the Labour Party?". It would be reasonable to suggest that there was more to this than simple inertia. Inertia was not a feature of a society which had now made the Labour Party into a major force. On 6th May 1910 Edward VII died and George succeeded as George V. While emperors, kings and dynasties disappeared in Europe George V was to go on to a twenty six year reign.
George was crowned on June 22nd 1911. He took the throne at a time when extremely difficult political decisions had to be made. In 1912 prime minister Herbert Asquith was struggling with the situation in Ireland. A decision to create a united Ireland would infuriate stubbornly British Ulster and probably lead to civil war. A decision to create an independent Ireland without including Ulster would infuriate those in southern Ireland who would only accept a united Ireland. Once again the consequence would probably be civil war. Nobody wanted to make this impossible decision, and in a 1912 speech Asquith seemed to intimate that the king would have to decide. It was not the king's job to take these decisions, as was soon made clear. But what the king could do was support those who had to make such choices. In many ways the decisions facing politicians at this time were impossible, and there must have been many dark days when there seemed to be no way forward. Tension in the Balkans widened via a web of international alliances into the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. For a political leader in moments of the most intense stress, the fact that there was no one left to turn to for support must have been hard to bear. Fortunately for British politicians there was someone to turn to, one last source of authority which symbolically at least went beyond their own. And the symbolic nature of this authority did not rule out its practical usefulness. In 1915 Asquith's government was falling apart over a proposed policy of compulsory conscription. Asquith was trying to force conscription through, in the face of determined opposition from home secretary John Simon, and chancellor Reginald Mckenna. George hurried down from Sandringham where he had intended to spend Christmas and gave Asquith his personal support. According to Harold Nicolson it was this support that allowed Asquith to fight on, and saved the government from collapse. This would be a feature of George's contribution for many years to come. In many periods of crisis, when British government seemed on the point of collapse over irreconcilable differences, there would be one last final source of authority to help hold things together.
There are many examples of George as the final refuge of stability in the chaos of politics. Two instances can be described from the history of Britain in the 1920s. In May 1923 Andrew Bonar Law resigned as prime minister when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. If a prime minister is defeated in Parliament the king sends for the opposition leader. If a prime minister retires, they would usually indicate a successor, or the party would have a clear idea who the successor should be. In this case Bonar Law was too ill to make any recommendation, and the Conservative Party was hopelessly split in their opinion about who should be the new leader. The two candidates were Lord Curzon, an aristocratic former viceroy of India, and Stanley Baldwin, a little known iron foundry owner from Bewdley. The king chose Baldwin. Then when Baldwin's short and troubled administration collapsed in December 1923, the general election that followed gave a hung parliament with the Conservative Party on 258 seats, Labour on 191, and the Liberals on 158. No one party had a clear majority. The Liberal Party held the balance of power. They could side with either of the larger two parties to give a Conservative or Labour government. Once again there was no clear opinion about which way things should go. Once again the king was called upon to use his prerogative. With Baldwin having lost the confidence of the Conservatives, and with conflicting advice coming from all sides, King George decided on 22nd January 1924 to call for Labour Party leader Ramsay Macdonald. This was the king's decision. He was later to write that "I never consulted Mr Baldwin in any way when he came to resign, nor asked his advice as to who to send for" (quoted Nicolson P384). Ramsay Macdonald's administration was to be the first Labour government, and it was brought about in no small part by King George V.
George V was to continue to play his role as the last resort for desperate politicians through the rest of his reign. Movingly he was the last source of support for an increasingly alienated Ramsay Macdonald in the 1930s. By then disputes over economic policy had led to a coalition government with Macdonald as leader. Macdonald had to force through public spending cuts which infuriated his former Labour colleagues. Meanwhile Conservative and Liberal MPs treated Macdonald, their former enemy, with nothing more than grudging tolerance. An isolated man, Macdonald's health began to fail, and virtually the only person to stand by him and acknowledge his sacrifice was the king. George would visit Macdonald in hospital and write him encouraging letters. This support continued until Ramsay Macdonald's death in 1937.
As the 1930s advanced, and Britain began to emerge from the Depression, an immediate sense of crisis receded. King George's life settled into the regularity he had always loved. He would ride in Windsor Great Park, work in the writing room at Buckingham Palace, and hold audiences in the India Room. Christmas broadcasts to the nation began from Sandringham on December 25th 1932. Public acclaim was confirmed during the jubilee of May 1935 when the king and queen appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace everyday for a week in front of cheering crowds. A procession through poor areas of London brought out thousands of cheering people.
George's health was in decline by December 1935. On 20th January 1936 he was signing documents in the presence of officials and was having great difficulty doing so. He apologised for keeping his officials waiting, before finally managing to write his initials. He died at five minutes to midnight that night. And so passed a king who for twenty six turbulent years had given encouragement and support to the people who had the weighty job of government. For people in general he was a symbolic and actual source of stability and continuity through years of chaos. He was certainly human and had his shortcomings. The way he treated his children was often brutal, and he could not be described as imaginative or intellectual. But in his own unassuming way George V was there for politicians who had no one else to turn to, a stable presence beyond party splits and bitter policy disputes. Today King George V is largely forgotten, and his biography sits unread in the County Library for years. He is dismissed as a meaningless stamp collector, and serves the interests of historians who sacrifice monarchs for the purposes of a story of the development of democracy. History is never so neat as the story told by historians. It is surely reasonable to suggest that the monarchy survived in Britain during the reign of George V because it served a useful function.