| Minding her own business
When George W. Bush was presented to Queen Elizabeth, who was visiting Washington as his father’s guest in May 1991, he told her he was the black sheep of the president’s family, and asked, “Who’s yours'” The British monarch told him it was none of his business. Obviously, Bush had not done a deal then with God to give up “drugs and alcohol” for the White House, with help from the American Supreme Court where He has more influence than with voters. Nor had destiny marked him out as another Richard Coeur d’Lion to lead crusades against Afghanistan and Iraq. As a born-again Christian, he may not repeat his boorishness when he descends on London in a fortnight. Even if he does, the queen is unlikely to be as blunt this time. She has her own reasons for saving relations across the pond, as some Brits fondly call the Atlantic Ocean, at a time when they are especially fraught.
The invasion of Iraq and its bloody aftermath have spawned more argument than any other war. Some accuse Tony Blair of playing poodle to Bush’s hawk. Others see him as the saviour of a special relationship that is poised on Britain’s nervous anxiety that the United States of America might relapse into isolationism. No wonder Blair dazzles the world with his versatility. One day, he and Bill Clinton are Third Way soulmates. Another, he and Bush are buddies in windcheaters at the latter’s Crawford ranch. It is churlish, therefore, to suggest that the presidential visit was deliberately timed during the short parliamentary recess so as not to offend independent-minded members of parliament. As for cancelling the caesarian triumph of a state procession, mandatory for all visiting heads of state, Blair did not want to expose his guest to the late November chill. Protests no longer hold any terror for him. As Condoleeza Rice or the neo-cons might say, if the people and parliament cannot live up to the leadership — even a leadership that is not in direct communion with divinity like America’s — they must be abolished. It is but a short step from regime change to people change and parliament change.
Britain has changed dramatically. It’s not just thousands of HSBC, Lloyds, British Telecom, Tesco and Prudential jobs that have fled to India. In the peers dining room of the House of Lords the other day a man I took to be a khansama off duty — beard, cap, pyjamas and shirt-tails hanging out from under his jacket — strolled past where I sat with Lord Meghnad Desai under a portrait of the greedy and grasping Sarah Churchill, first Duchess of Marlborough. The apparition had not come from Park Circus but Lancashire, but I dare not name it for fear of being hanged, drawn and quartered for insulting a peer of the realm. What would this milord say, I wonder, if he knew that the duchess, ancestress of both Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales, wrote to her ducal son-in-law, “I am sorry you are a cuckold, my daughter a whore.” As India takes over all sanctums, those who used to see Britain as the 51st American state might have to think in terms of our pradeshs.
The queen is said to have responded to the revelations by her former footman, Paul Burrell, by smashing a saucer (Spode' Wedgwood' Royal Doulton') before sending her grandsons in to battle. We are waiting with bated breath for the promised encounter (pistols at dawn') between the ex-butler and the king to be.
Bush’s question must have touched the queen on the raw. Royalty may not admit a commoner’s right to be nosey or acknowledge anything like a black sheep in its ranks, but there were just too many of them to choose from in the queen’s family even then. The Prince of Wales talked to his flowers and had bought a house near his mistress’s where he now breeds excellent Highgrove lamb that you can order (at a price) in certain fashionable restaurants. As the media never forgets, his wife ostentatiously mooned alone in the Taj Mahal and publicly ducked her spouse’s kiss in Delhi. The Duke of York was “Randy Andy”, and people called his wife the Duchess of Pork. The list could go on.
It will, is the dire prediction of another former royal servant. According to Mark Bolland, Prince Charles’s sacked deputy private secretary, the royals will never survive unless they “embrace the cult of celebrity”. Reading between the lines, it is clear that Bolland wants to be reinstated so that he can hit out at the Burrells and obtain prime TV time for the royal family. He fears they are invisible; others complain they are too visible. I do, however, pity Her Majesty having to place interest above instinct and mind her p’s and q’s. She was tactless the last time a Republican president dropped in. It began a week before Ronald Reagan’s arrival when a fleet of black armoured vehicles drove into Windsor Castle’s quadrangle to “sweep” the buildings clean. The queen wasn’t going to put up with it and a royal flunkey conveyed to the Americans the gist of her message, “This is my castle, and if the security is good enough for me, then it is good enough for the president.” Reagan retaliated by spurning the boxes of chocolates that her staff had thoughtfully tied in red, white and blue ribbons and laid out in the castle’s 240 Suite. He dipped only into the jars of jelly beans decorated with the presidential crest he had brought with him.
Things have changed since then, globally and domestically. Uneasy lies the head etc, etc. The queen is constantly having to take soundings. When the Scottish Nationalists began to win parliamentary seats, she inquired discreetly how they felt about the Germans who had supplanted their own Stuarts. Recently, she sought enlightenment about her crown’s position in an even more closely united Europe. Clearly, she hasn’t too much faith in the late King Farouk’s reading of the cards.
But all is not lost. The queen has a friend, perhaps, even a business partner, in the American ambassador accredited to her court. Normally, politically appointed American ambassadors are enough to send a shudder down any spine, royal or commoner. There was Richard Nixon’s man in London, Walter Annenberg, who looked round him as he presented his credentials and told the queen, “Nice place you’ve got here.” He himself couldn’t reciprocate her hospitality, he pleaded, because he was suffering “discomfiture” at the ambassadorial residence on account of “elements of refurbishment and rehabilitation”.
The present occupant of Washington Square, as people call the heavily fortified and barricaded Grosvenor Square where the Americans own all the property, William Farrish, has two things in common with Annenberg. He is said to be as ignorant of foreign affairs (like his boss too) and he is also a friend of his boss. What matters so far as Buckingham Palace is concerned is that he understands horses. Farrish breeds thoroughbreds on his 2,000-acre Kentucky ranch, and owns Mineshaft, the stallion whose astonishing series of wins has made it the subject of American lore and legend.
Wasn’t it Prince Philip who said, perhaps a shade unkindly, that his wife wasn’t interested in anything that didn’t have four legs, run races and fart' Well, with the peers (including the bearded lord who caught my boggling eye) fending off the Blair group’s feeble moves to ban hunting, she found a kindred spirit in Farrish long before he was sent to the Court of St James’s. She and Burrell have stayed at his stud farm in the outskirts of Lexington and — more to the point — stabled her brood mares and yearlings with him. Burrell even suffered a serious injury there. Americans (like Indians) have their uses.