‘Britain is the great country it is today because of her’ – Liz Truss. No it isn’t: neither ‘great’ – however you like to define that – nor ‘because of her’. (She’s never had that kind of influence.)
Why does Truss feel she needs to spout such tripe? Is it to make Brits feel better about themselves and their corrupt and benighted homeland? Is it all part of a strategy to help national recovery through ‘positive thinking’? – Boris was full of this, of course, and of virtually nothing else in his brief (but still too long) tenure at No.10. The dangers in it are obvious: firstly complacency, neglecting what needs to be done in a practical way to improve things; secondly attracting ridicule abroad, quite justifiably (you should hear some of my Swedish friends); and thirdly – and most absurdly and dangerously – condemning doubters as ‘traitors’, for ‘under-selling’ Britain in the world. I can almost hear the ‘patriotic’ Tories assembling their firing squads.
I rather liked Queenie. She was stable and sensible, and quite like one’s ideal Mum. I liked her more when it was rumoured that she got on well with Harold Wilson and black Commonwealth leaders, and hated Thatcher as much as I did. I especially admired her restraint, never revealing – except through rumours – her opinions on anything controversial, although she must have had them. (If his previous history is anything to go by, our new King Charles won’t be nearly so disciplined.) She bore the most insufferable of her duties – like being polite to some dreadful world leaders – stoically, which was all that was demanded of her. Of course she had the advantage of living in enormous luxury, with half a dozen castles to choose from, a royal yacht at one time, a whole stable of horses, lots of cuddly doggies, and an army of retainers to administer to her every whim; but none of that would have compensated for having to talk with Thatcher every week or so, and to be nice to Donald Trump. I reckon that if you have to have a ‘constitutional monarch’ in this day and age, Elizabeth II was a pretty good model for it. She’s also a fair argument against having an elected Head of State; which in Britain’s case might land you with a TV personality as your President. Imagine: someone like Boris Johnson, for life.
Sweden’s royal family comes close to that model, with the added advantage – an important one – of not having so many hangers-on. That would be my ideal for Britain: a drastically scaled-down Royal Family, living in just one little castle, with a sommarhus in Scotland – well away from the English – for a holiday home. Our late Queen might have liked that better.
I met her twice, both embarrassingly. On the first occasion she was visiting my school to mark its 400th anniversary (actually that ‘400’ was a bit of a cheat: there had been a long interregnum in the 19th century), and I was in a CCF ‘Guard of Honour’, lining her route as she drove away. (I tried to get out of it by being as scruffy as I could – I hated the khaki uniform – but was tidied up and placed in line.) I don’t think she spoke to me, mercifully. Imagine my horror, however, when I saw a woman break through the cordon to the royal car in order to curtsy to her; and realised it was my royalist mother. Of course I tried to keep it from my friends. But it soon got out, to my schoolboy shame thereafter.
On the second occasion, I actually talked with her. It was at a big shindig in – I think – Stationer’s Hall, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the (British) Historical Association, which she was ‘patron’ of. I’d given a public lecture in connexion with that. (All the lectures were published soon afterwards, in a book edited by Donald Read.) She reached my little group later than scheduled, by which time I’d quaffed nine or ten glasses of dry sherry. I didn’t think it would matter, because all royals are inbred and stupid, aren’t they? So whatever I said she wouldn’t take in. She asked me a question – I think it was about Anglo-American relations – and I answered it in a simple form I thought she would understand. So I wasn’t prepared for her very intelligent follow-up question; which put me into full – semi-drunken – lecturer mode. I thought at the time that it went down well; but the photos taken of the event showed her looking as bored as sin. But it taught me a lesson. Don’t underestimate Queenie, just because she’s a royal. That was arrogant of me.
So, that’s my personal reminiscence, on the occasion of what I’m led to believe is a sad death (but she was 96), and the end of an era: except that in modern times ‘eras’ can’t be marked by monarchs’ lives. If they could, then Elizabeth II’s will probably be seen as an era of national decline, and not at all as Liz Truss presents it. (Isn’t it interesting, incidentally, that Truss was the last politician the Queen met, just a few hours before being taken ill?)