From the Archives: Robert Harris on The Queen and Mrs Thatcher, 1988 | Queen Elizabeth II

A a few years ago, the queen revealed to a group of visiting American students that she kept a diary. “My husband reads in bed,” she allegedly told them, “and so does Prince Charles. But I write my diary – and it’s more truthful than anything you’ll read in the papers!

It’s a tantalizing prospect. The Queen has been on the throne for 36 years. She has dealt with eight different prime ministers. If this monarch is as penetrating on paper as he is said to be in conversation, it will be a unique insight into our times.

What, for example, are the Queen’s private comments about the woman who has been her prime minister for nearly a decade? We will have to wait at least 50 years to find out. Contemporary evidence suggests they may well be explosive.

Take the events of the past two weeks. Future chroniclers of the Royal House of Windsor’s relationship with Thatcher will find plenty to read in the November 1988 articles. Three, in particular, should prove fascinating.

The first is Friday, November 11. That evening the Queen, accompanied by her lady-in-waiting, the Countess of Airlie, and her private secretary, Sir William Heseltine, attended a dinner hosted by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Mr Bernard Weatherill . The occasion was to commemorate the tercentenary of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The 35 diners who sat down to eat in the Speaker’s House at the Palace of Westminster represented the cream of the British parliamentary establishment.

There was the current Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and his predecessors, Lords Havers, Hailsham and Elwyn-Jones. Mrs. Thatcher and Mr. Kinnock were there. So did Lord Callaghan, Lord Wilson and Mr. Edward Heath.

During the evening, the Queen took care to speak privately with most of those present, including Mr Kinnock. They were watched by several other guests in lively conversation, with the Labor leader laughing and joking. The Scottish Nationalist Party – which in the early hours of the morning had overthrown a Labor majority of 19,500 to win Glasgow Govan’s by-election – was the main political talking point of the evening.

At one point, someone (multiple versions made the rounds in Westminster last week) the Queen expressed concern over the outcome. She does not like the nationalists’ threat to the unity of the United Kingdom. She reportedly remarked that Govan voters rejected the two main parties because ‘they’ve got nothing – they’ve got nothing’, adding: ‘I know that because I sailed there in Britannia’.

What makes the words embarrassing is their authenticity. The Queen sailed from Glasgow in Britannia three months ago and passed through Govan to return to the royal yacht.

More importantly, the remarks come in a series of reports that the queen is personally concerned about growing divisions of wealth in her kingdom.

On November 20, the Sunday Express informed her readers that she told Kinnock of her “alarm” at Govan’s result. But in this case, the Express the report – later amplified by more detailed accounts later in the week – was drowned out by a much bigger story landing on the royal morning breakfast table: that the Queen was to be told by Mrs Thatcher that she should not accept any forthcoming invitation from the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to visit Moscow.

It is an affront to the monarch on several levels. He broke the convention that the Prime Minister’s advice is strictly confidential. It suggested the Queen was Mrs Thatcher’s cat’s paw – that a visit from Elizabeth II is a stamp of approval to be given to grateful foreign nations by the Prime Minister as she (and not a simple sautéed monarch) sees fit.

That, in turn, touched on an even trickier, but largely unspoken, issue in No 10’s relationship with the palace: that we’ve become a nation with two monarchs, and that in his housewife/superstar advancing in the world, Margaret Thatcher has gradually become more like the Queen of England than the real thing.

If the disclosure was sanctioned by the Prime Minister, it went wrong. Her embarrassment was evident in the House of Commons last Tuesday when Dennis Skinner, the left-wing Labor MP for Bolsover, demanded to know why she was ‘stopping the Queen from going to Russia’. An unusually troubled Mrs Thatcher replied (in her utterly characteristic royal plural) that “we are not discussing the matter. [It] was not addressed in any way.

Finally, on Wednesday evening, the Queen and her superpowered Prime Minister came face to face at Buckingham Palace during the Prime Minister’s regular weekly audience. Such encounters are normally quite low-key, but – in a rare break from precedent – palace sources said matters of protocol had indeed been raised and Mrs Thatcher had been forced to apologise.

Of all the eight prime ministers in her reign so far, Thatcher would be the one the Queen has the coolest relationship with. “Pragmatic” is the nicest word a knowledgeable MP can find.

Her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, a romantic royalist, adored her, and the two chattered happily about racehorses. Harold Macmillan charmed her. Harold Wilson – the first of its prime ministers to come from outside the traditional ruling class – established a relationship of mutual respect.

“I will certainly advise my successor to do his homework in front of his audience”, he said on his retirement in 1976, “otherwise he will feel like an unprepared schoolboy.” His successor, James Callaghan, had an even closer relationship. In his reverence for the monarchy, he was the embodiment of working-class conservatism.

Why, then, should Margaret Thatcher have less connection with the Queen than her Labor predecessors? It’s partly a matter of temperament; the two cannot relax in each other’s company.

The Queen has only crossed the threshold of 10 Downing Street three times in 36 years: once for Churchill’s retirement dinner in 1955; again for Wilson’s in 1976; and, most recently, in December 1985 for a banquet marking the building’s 250th anniversary.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher attend a ball in Lusaka, Zambia on August 1, 1979. Photography: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

On this occasion – in the presence of Macmillan, Home, Wilson, Heath and Callagahan, as well as Thatcher – the Queen spoke, knowingly laughing, of the “board games which some of you so nobly endured at Balmoral”.

It was a joke Mrs. Thatcher didn’t appreciate. According to another house guest, the Royal Family’s obligatory after-dinner charades games left the notoriously relaxed Prime Minister “almost rigid with horror” on one of his annual visits.

On another famous trip to Balmoral in the early 1980s, Mrs Thatcher had to join the Royal Family for a picnic. One participant recalled how “then the queen insisted on washing, in a small hut. Margaret was appalled and wanted to do it herself, but the Queen wouldn’t let her, as it was the only day of the year she could pretend to be a real person.

There are many stories of royal amusement at the Prime Minister’s extravagant curtsies, for example, or the Queen’s snub when Mrs Thatcher suggested a system to ensure they didn’t wear the same clothes at the same time. function (“Her Majesty,” came the response, “do not notice what others are wearing.”)

All of this is trivial, of course. But the stories add up to paint a compelling picture of two powerful and intelligent women, each unsure how to handle the other.

Twenty years ago Labor politician Richard Crossman asked one of the Queen’s advisers, Godfrey Agnew, ‘if she preferred the Tories to us because they were our social superiors’. According to Crossman, “He said, ‘I don’t think so. The Queen does not make a fine distinction between politicians of different parties. They all belong to roughly the same social category according to her.

But if social differences have largely faded since the queen ascended the throne, the ideological chasm has widened considerably. A substantial body of evidence has accumulated over the past few years suggesting that the royal family harbors private doubts about the nature of the policies pursued in the Thatcher revolution.

This is partly a matter of concern for the social cohesion of the nation. During the miners’ strike four years ago, the Queen said she wanted to see more vigorous attempts at settlement by the government. She expressed concern about the deliberately organized mass unemployment of 1981-82. It is said that she is afraid of the divisions between north and south. His reported remarks about Govan fall into the same category.

There have been equally well-publicized disagreements over foreign policy. Mrs Thatcher despises the Commonwealth; the queen is devoted to it. Mrs Thatcher is opposed to South African sanctions; the queen is more sensitive to the feelings of black Africa.

When the Americans invaded the Commonwealth island of Grenada, a furious monarch summoned his prime minister to Buckingham Palace and reportedly left her standing throughout the audience.

Prince Charles’ doubts about Thatcherite philosophy are even better documented. He does not share the prime minister’s faith in an unfettered market as the solution to man’s problems. Similar skepticism underlies his attacks on the Thatcher government for doing too little to tackle acid rain and the decay of city centres.

The conclusion is inescapable: the sovereign and her heir are old-fashioned “wet” who would not find their place in the current Cabinet.

Instead, a mirror world has been created in Britain: a world where the Queen worries with the leader of the Labor Party about losing a by-election; where far-left Labor MPs defend Her Majesty’s right to travel wherever she pleases; where Downing Street takes it upon itself to cite the murder of the Tsar 70 years ago as the reason why the Queen should not visit Russia, despite 81% of the population encouraging her to go.

Not the least of Mrs Thatcher’s accomplishments is that she overthrew the British establishment. Who would have predicted that three of the institutions most hostile to Conservative government would turn out to be the Church of England, the House of Lords and the monarchy?

Robert Harris was political editor of the Observer from 1987 before leaving in the 1990s to become a Sunday Times columnist and focus on his hit thrillers

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