They were childhood playmates and firm friends throughout the longest reign in British history. In Elizabeth II’s darkest moments – during her ‘annus horribilis’ of 1992 and after the death of Diana – the Earl of Airlie helped the Queen and her family through the storm.
His shrewd reforms left the monarchy in immeasurably better shape to face the challenges of the 21st Century. Born less than a month after the Queen, it was often said that she sometimes referred to him as ‘my twin’.
The last witness to the 1937 coronation of George VI, the 13th Earl of Airlie was perhaps the oldest guest at the coronation of Charles III in Westminster Abbey last month.
In Elizabeth II’s darkest moments – during her ‘annus horribilis’ of 1992 and after the death of Diana – David Airlie helped the Queen and her family through the storm
Nine months ago, he and his wife, Ginny, a very popular lady-in-waiting, were among a select few invited to the late Queen’s state funeral at the Abbey and also her service of committal at St George’s Chapel Windsor.
It was, however, David Airlie’s thirteen years as Lord Chamberlain – effectively non-executive chairman – of the Royal Household which earn him his place in the history books as one of the great Elizabethans. As he always liked to remind both the royal family and their staff: ‘Things are never as bad as you think they are, nor as good as you want them to be.’
The proudest of Scots, he was raised at Cortachy Castle in Angus, near the Queen Mother’s ancestral home. The young Lord Ogilvy (his courtesy title) went through Eton and the Scots Guards, serving in the Malayan emergency, before embarking on a City career. He succeeded his father to the earldom in 1968. Clever, charming and diplomatic, he rose to be chairman of Schroders in 1977. By then, Ginny had become a lady-in-waiting to the Queen and the couple had six children.
During the mid-Eighties, when all seemed sunny in the royal garden with weddings, babies and glowing coverage, the Queen was alert to looming financial trouble. The age-old Georgian funding model for the head of state, the Civil List, made no account for inflation. Every time the budget had to be increased, the Queen was attacked for ‘a pay rise’. The government of Margaret Thatcher was cracking down on all forms of wasteful expenditure and the Royal Household was a plum target. The monarch decided it was time for change and asked David Airlie to shake up an institution still in a Victorian mindset.
David Airlie (left) is seen with his brother Angus, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret and Anne Glenconner, the late Queen’s maid of honour at her Coronation in 1953
David Airlie (seen here with Princess Margaret in 1948) was a key figure in the royal household, regularly staying at Sandringham and Balmoral to go shooting with the family
The Earl’s wife Virginia, seen here together, was one of the late Queen’s ladies-in-waiting
David Airlie and his wife Virginia beam as they arrive for their wedding rehearsal in 1952
Prince Charles is seen with Lord Airlie at RAF Northolt in 1997 after the arrival of Princess Diana’s body following her death in a car crash
The Queen And Prince Philip With Lord Airlie Attending A Garden Party At Buckingham Palace
Lord Airlie is seen standing behind King Charles as he conducts an investiture as the Prince of Wales in 1986
‘He took it upon himself to call the heads of department together and read the riot act,’ a later Lord Chamberlain, Earl Peel, told me. ‘He said: ‘This is unacceptable. We’re not working to properly controlled budgets. I wish to see change.’ And that didn’t half rattle a few cages, I can tell you.’ After securing the Queen’s permission, Lord Airlie commissioned management consultant Michael Peat to conduct and implement the most exhaustive modernisation programme since the era of Prince Albert.
The result was a radically different Civil List deal, fixed for ten years from 1990. His reforms had proved so efficient that when the deal came up for renewal in 2000, the sum stayed the same for another decade. After 20 years without a budget increase, it was replaced by the current system, the Sovereign Grant. There is a certain irony that this year’s figures should be announced on the same day as Lord Airlie’s death.
After the Windsor Castle fire in 1992, it was he who helped devised the plan to fund repairs by opening Buckingham Palace. Long before the monarchy’s historic tax exemptions became a flashpoint, Lord Airlie had drawn up plans for the Queen to pay income tax.
When Diana, Princess of Wales was killed in Paris in 1997, Lord Airlie and his team had already drawn up funeral plans by the time Tony Blair’s New Labour machine came on board to take the credit.
The Earl of Airlie is seen at the Order of the Thistle ceremony at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 2018
The Earl of Airlie is seen at his desk in 1986, when he was Lord Chamberlain
While writing my book, Queen of Our Times, I talked to Lord Airlie at length. He explained that the Palace had already torn up all existing blueprints and he had submitted a long memo to the Queen explaining ‘the importance of catching and reflecting the public mood of ‘the people’s Princess’.’
At night, he would walk incognito among the crowds. ‘What was sinister was the total silence,’ he said. ‘As I went back into my office at Buckingham Palace, I said to myself: ‘Just pay attention.’ And that is what we did.’
Just two months ago, I organised a lunch for the maids of honour and pages who had taken part in the 1953 coronation. All were thrilled when David Airlie came along, with Ginny, to regale us with tales of the 1937 event (he had been a page to his father, he recalled, and caused a terrific flap when he lost his sword).
David Airlie was always modest about his part in the modern royal story. ‘The main thing is it’s in good shape,’ he said of the monarchy. ‘It really is.’ In no small part, it must be said, because of him.