The Day the Queen Flew to Scotland for the Grouse Shooting
(Cavalier Publishing, 1968)
George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership rapidly outgrows its original remit to encourage economic development in the North and begins to take on the role of a regional government. From the point of view of Westminster and Whitehall, with their hopelessly London-centric attitudes, this is all happening out of sight and out of mind.
Late – too late – in the day the national authorities realise how far matters have gone. The partnership changes its name to the Council of the North and slaps down a non-negotiable demand for complete internal self-government for the North Country, with Westminster retaining power over defence and foreign affairs only.
The Army and Royal Air Force split and reconfigure themselves along north-south lines. A civil war follows, one of unbelievable savagery on both sides…
That, in a nutshell, is the plot of The Day the Queen Flew to Scotland for the Grouse Shooting. The only tweak I have made is the mention of the NPP – Mr Osborne was minus three years old in 1968, and the author posits a Northern Development Council, a similar type of outfit.
Civil wars do not simply ‘happen’, so what is the spark here? In short, long-standing resentment against southern privileges boils over and a group of chancers (or visionaries, if you prefer) decide to ride the tiger rather than calm tempers and quiet the animal down.
One such explains: ‘London,’ he said, ‘is where the blossom and the fruit are. But the roots are here. We want at least some of the pickings from our own tree.’
Later, another expands on the theme:
‘You know the truth of what I’m saying. For two hundred years we have been a depressed race. We still live in conditions that are a scandal in any country claiming to be civilised – conditions in which no Southerner would keep his dog. We’ve produced the wealth of this country and it’s been stolen from us. But we’re going no further with you. This is where slavery ends.’
The narrative spine of the novel is the relationship between Valerie Paine, sometimes-errant wife of Robert Paine, a senior aide to the Prime Minister, and monocle-sporting Colonel Douglas Fitzwallace, lead adventurer on the Council of the North. She, a former lover of Fitzwallace, is effectively dispatched to the North by the Prime Minister to try to open a line of communication with the rebels.
He greets her at his headquarters in York.
‘You are the most courageous, reckless creature I’ve ever met. The most beautiful too. Which of our many secrets do you want to know – and how do you propose getting the information back to the South?’
‘You can’t really believe –?’ She laughed but he had caught her and she knew it. It was a ridiculous pretence in any case. ‘I came out of the sheerest boredom,’ she said.
From the start, London mishandles the northern question. It sends Paine to talk to the Council of the North rather than the Prime Minister, who may possibly have defused looming trouble. Then Downing Street despatches troops of the Household Cavalry to head North and arrest the leading members of the Council. Their mission is known in advance and they are mostly gunned down by ‘northern’ soldiers in the streets of York.
The North retaliates with a daring raid on the BBC TV studios in Wood Lane, which are burned to the ground. An enraged London government announces that a state of war exists with the Northern rebels.
Massive troop movements were reported throughout the south-east. By evening, long miles of convoys were moving north along [the] M1, A1, A5 and A6. Ahead of them, patrols were trying to define the North by discovering the first lines of hard resistance.
This is easier said than done. Southern troops are non-plussed to encounter hostility as far south as Bedford and Biggleswade.
It became increasingly clear to him [Paine] that what he had suspected but never expressed, was in fact true. The North was not a geographical location, clearly bounded by this river and that range of hills. The North was an attitude, a feeling, a particular philosophical conviction. As such it could exist as easily in Plymouth and Norwich as in Newcastle.
Westminster’s biggest blunder still lay ahead. The Southern army runs into heavy resistance around Nottingham, and its commander General Sir Maxwell Howard is in no doubt as to the correct response.
‘We shall make an example of these people,’ he said, sounding as if he took the opposition as a personal affront. ‘Our retaliation will be massive. Those who survive it will link the word Nottingham with Falaise and Stalingrad.’
‘Devastator’ bombers flatten the suburbs and heavy artillery shatters the city centre. In all, 20,000 people are killed, but, far from breaking resistance, the atrocity acts as a rallying call for the rebels. A Northern counter-offensive brings the rebel forces as far south as the main street of Cricklewood. At this point, the Prime Minister declares: ‘It’s no use, Robert, we can’t hold them ourselves.’
What follows is an entirely predictable development that seems never to have occurred to the strategic geniuses of the Council of the North. A rebel general is handed a signal by a runner.
It read: ‘Northern cities heavily bombed this morning by B.254 aircraft of American 12th Airforce. Heavy armour reported landed Dover, Folkestone, Deal. Expect to encounter substantial American reinforcements within next twenty-four hours.”
Emboldened by their new, superbly-equipped comrades, the Southern forces let rip:
Nothing escaped. To the tacticians in London everything Northern was a legitimate target. Nothing was worth preserving. That savagery and bitterness that has always characterised civil war, directed military thinking.
Valerie heads back south to tell her husband she is leaving. Fitzwallace, on the run from Southern forces on a blousy, dusty day, stops in a cornfield to reflect on the failure of the Northern liberation movement:
It was something in the Northern spirit that wasn’t, in essence, independent. It could rise in a bloody bubble of fury, but it couldn’t take charge. It couldn’t see itself in command.
The civil war lasts just four months, ending on August 11, as the Queen headed to Scotland to bag some grouse. That seems realistic to me – in a fairly confined country such as ours, professional troops employing modern equipment would rapidly erode each other’s manpower and thus fighting strength.
Less realistic, I fear, is the role of Scotland. Other than being in the title and in the Queen’s travel itinerary, it doesn’t have one. And no, that is not because this is strictly an England-only saga, because Welsh freedom fighters weigh in on the side of the North.
It is simply inconceivable that Scotland, with its strong military traditions, would not have featured either as a base for the forces of the Crown, or as an ally of the North – or both. But then, the one part of the country that, in real life, was getting ready to explode in 1968 in a conflict leading to thousands of deaths receives not even one mention. This is a fantastic book, but it is perhaps a shame that Arthur Wise chose the wrong ‘north’.