Despite the umpteen programmes of reminiscence Gielgud did on both radio and television, there was always more and I never felt he had been sufficiently debriefed. Anyone of any distinction at all should, on reaching a certain age, be taken away for a weekend at the state’s expense, formally interviewed and stripped of all their recollections.
Alan Bennett, diary entry on the death of John Gielgud, 21 May 2000
Untold Stories (Faber & Faber, 2005)
Queen Elizabeth II is not only the semi-fictional character from Alan Bennett’s play A Question of Attribution (1988) and novella The Uncommon Reader (2007), she is also England’s real-life longest-reigning monarch.
As a result, she has had a unique connection with every British premier from Winston Churchill to the current one, a chubby fellow with a purple face. They all knew that the weekly audience she gives to her first minister was the one genuinely private conversation they could have, safe in the knowledge that it would not leak – unlike the Eurosceptic feelings she is alleged to have expressed at a lunch with Nick Clegg (if the Sun is to be believed).
Let’s speculate on what these unrecorded conversations might have covered. (Yes, I know there’s a West End and Broadway play based on the same idea.)
Churchill? How did those first meetings, and the advice he dispensed to her, shape the new Queen’s approach to monarchy? Anthony Eden? Suez, of course. Harold Macmillan? I’m sure Profumo came up, along with the wind of change that was blowing away so much of her Empire. Alec Douglas-Home? Perhaps she sympathised with the 14th Earl of Home’s predicament as ‘an elegant anachronism’? Harold Wilson? Did he put away the pipe and get out his preferred cigar? Edward Heath? What were the Queen’s feelings about the whole Europe business as we prepared to go in? Jim Callaghan? Perhaps speaking with HM was a welcome relief from the hostility of his cabinet, certain trades unions, Parliament and, by 1979, pretty much everyone. Margaret Thatcher? There’s been no shortage of speculation about that relationship.
Sadly, those prime ministers took their royal confidences to the grave, and the four who are still with us seem no more likely to break the omertà. (The question of whether Jeremy Corbyn would uphold convention is probably a speculation too far.)
Beyond British politics, she has had the pleasure of meeting every US president since John F. Kennedy (with the exception of Lyndon Johnson), as well as some less celebrated ‘statesmen’ such as Nicolae Ceaușescu. She was still relatively young when JFK came to town – did his legendary charms extend to her?* Did her diplomacy slip when faced with some of the dictators she has been required to welcome as head of state? It never did in her correspondence with Idi Amin, but one could imagine, at the very least, a subtle put-down to someone like Imelda Marcos, especially as such a rebuke would have glanced off the Steel Butterfly’s armour of self-regard without diplomatic consequence.
Then there are all the state banquets, all the gifts she has been forced to receive with a smile. Was there ever a moment when she stormed off screaming, ‘If I have to hear “God Save the Queen” one more time, God save everyone from this f****** Queen.’ The national anthem certainly bored Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the former Master of the Queen’s Music, and he didn’t have to hear it played pretty much everywhere he went.
Of course, one mystery has already spawned a small industry of speculation, most notably the Oscar-winning movie The Queen (2006). Only the most tediously earnest of republicans would feign disinterest in the Diana drama and HM’s reaction to its tragic final act. Did Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell infuriate her, or bring her to her senses? What did she make of the mourners outside Kensington Palace? At any point did she really think ‘It’s all going horribly wrong’?
And how has she reacted – if she has deigned to pay them any mind at all – to the conspiracy theories? (Which I, with all her other loyal subjects, regard as blatantly made-up and ridiculous.) Does it pain her that she and her husband have been thought of in such murderous terms? Or is she flattered that anyone thinks the Firm still has the chops to pull off an operation like that?
Perhaps we should never know. As an EU citizen, the monarch has the right, under article 7 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, ‘to respect for his or her private and family life, home and communications’. But what of the Queen’s political life?
She has had to give assent to every bill passed by Parliament during her reign – did any at all cause her to consider emulating the veto-wielding Queen Anne? Perhaps this one? Now consider all the other nations of which is she, or has been, Queen, and all the other things that have been done in her name. In 1975 an Australian prime minister was deposed by vice-regal fiat – she must have been consulted, or at least told. Did she express a view at all? Or regret what was done?
Her mother was never backward in coming forward with her opinions (or at least sharing them with those who would immediately rush to publish, like Woodrow Wyatt), her eldest son likewise. By contrast, HM has seldom expressed a clear view on anything, other than that she didn’t much care for us declining to supply her with a free yacht. And the forthcoming EU referendum (possibly).
It might be, despite having had an unparalleled opportunity to observe the last 12 prime ministers – has anyone else even met them all, let alone spoken to them on a weekly basis? – that the Queen has gleaned no insights whatsoever into her various premiers. Perhaps they kept their thoughts hidden from her; possibly she had little to contribute on anything other than horse racing. But since we’ve paid, it would be as well to find out.
Therefore I propose a deal. It is clear Mrs Philip Mountbatten is not minded openly to spill the beans, or even a drop of sauce, on the historically significant figures she has encountered while on the throne. But time must be carved out of her schedule, and a suitable interrogator be appointed in order, as Bennett puts it, to strip her of all her recollections – on the condition that they will be kept utterly secret until she dies, and if necessary, until everyone concerned is dead, or at least out of public life.
She might not be keen – which would be admirable, in its way. We should be impressed that someone who has been one of the world’s best-known public figures for over 60 years has kept so much under wraps. But this is not about picking up gossip on Kennedy or Diana, or discovering if she looked forward to her weekly audiences with Thatcher or Blair like most of us would look forward to a tooth extraction.
Alright, a bit of it is. But mainly it’s about history.
Monarchists make much of HM’s sense of duty. Well, what greater service to her nation could she perform than to lay out for its future historians, and her humble subjects generally, her uniquely privileged testimony on the events and personalities of her reign?
There is no need for legislation, just for the Queen, as she did on Income Tax, to realise that tradition can be trumped by doing the right thing.
Okay, it wouldn’t be quite that simple. The release of cabinet minutes is subject to the 30-year rule for good reason: effective government depends on ministers being able to discuss the most sensitive of issues without fear of party-political barracking or media simplification. It seems reasonable that these interviews should be similarly embargoed – this is about understanding the past, not influencing the present, or embarrassing individuals, however deservedly.
There’s a precedent. In 1990 a candid interview with the recently-deceased Emperor Hirohito was released. It had been recorded 44 years earlier, and featured the former Japanese divinity claiming things like: ‘It was unavoidable for me as a constitutional monarch under the constitutional polity to do anything but give approval to the Tojo Cabinet on the decision to start the war.’ His testimony is largely self-justifying.
Queen Elizabeth would have no such need to defend her actions, since there haven’t really been any. She has consented, and presumably sometimes advised. Would there be constitutional implications, though?
The monarchy seems to have survived the Edward VIII business, the unpopularity of Prince Albert, and the widowed Victoria’s withdrawal from public life; a revelation in, say, the year 2045 that a deceased Queen did not always get on with a long-dead prime minister is unlikely to bring down the Royal Family, should they make it that far.
The whole thing might, of course, amount to little more than a series of bland platitudes. Perhaps a monarch can only bear the role if they are entirely immune to critical thought. Alternatively, it could produce the single most important perspective on the major figures of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
And along the way HM can clarify what she really said to Nick Clegg.
* For the avoidance of doubt, I’d just like to know if she found him attractive, NOTHING MORE.