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King First and God After

On being ghosted by Prince Charles.

I have never dreamed about the Queen of England, though many British people do. But I was once very annoyed to miss the chance of meeting Her Majesty, even for a few seconds, because of a mistake made by someone else. One day some years ago Queen Elizabeth II held a reception at Windsor Castle for quite a large number of middle-ranking British journalists, a sort of mass baptism. When I saw reports of this event, and the names of those who had been asked, I wondered for a moment why I had been left off the list. As it happened, I hadn’t been. But my invitation had been sent to a newspaper I had left several years before. My departure was not without rancor, and my former employers had (I assumed) reasonably not bothered to forward it. How they must have chortled to find that I was so obscure that the royal press office had not even noticed that I had moved elsewhere.  I have never quite forgiven the Palace bureaucrat responsible for this detailed double insult, made even worse because it was not even deliberate. He in turn must have thought I had oafishly ignored a summons from my rightful Queen, a frightful piece of bad manners. The opportunity has not come again. Nor will it.

Would I, in her presence, have become the stammering, gargling, hesitant crawler that so many people do become in the presence of Majesty? Probably, though I like to think not. I have some experience of groveling, and hope not to repeat it. As a tyro political journalist, many years before, I was pathetically pleased to take cabinet ministers out to lunch and glowed with self-importance at being allowed ( as part of her press entourage) to hunch in the tail of Margaret Thatcher’s official aircraft as it zig-zagged from one foreign capital to another. I now hugely regret having been too servile and star struck to interrogate them properly. And these were men and women briefly elevated to office by votes, not a hereditary monarch solemnly crowned and anointed in a ceremony so ancient that it might actually mean something.

I have in the ensuing years been disarmed and charmed, totally against my will,  by Bill Clinton, mistakenly canvassed for my vote by Mikhail Gorbachev, stood in the buffet queue next to Boris Yeltsin, been personally glared at by Margaret Thatcher, and told to "sit down and stop being bad" by Anthony "Tony" Blair. I have glimpsed something that looked like horror in the eyes of the Archbishop of Canterbury, when I introduced myself to him at a Lambeth Palace reception to which I thought he had invited me. I like to believe that by now I would be unbeguiled by any sort of fame or grandeur.  I would of course be wisely respectful to any proper tyrant or despot,  who could have me whisked to a dungeon for merely looking insolent. But that is different. The deference we feel for royalty in Britain (not unknown among Americans) is not fear but a sort of worship. This should clearly be reserved for a higher authority. Yet we are confused about where one begins and the other ends. There is a marvelous scene in the film Chariots of Fire in which Eric Liddell, an Olympic runner who refuses to race on the Sabbath, is being urged to break his Christian principles for the sake of national prestige. He is brought before the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, and a bristling old courtier, Lord Cadogan. The Prince tries to charm Liddell into giving way but quickly realizes he is dealing with that rare thing, real principle. The disgusted courtier rumbles
"In my day,  it was King first and God after." One of the many clever things about the exchange, set in the 1920s, is that putting the monarch above God is portrayed as the traditional, old-fashioned thing to do. I rather imagine that it was. I have some pictures from the late 1930s of a visit to one of my father’s warships by King George VI and his queen, parents of our present monarch. The atmosphere of solemn reverence is strongly conveyed, and it must have been one of the last occasions on which the Royal Navy’s Victorian full-dress uniform—high collars, ceremonial swords and all—was ever worn. Events were fast approaching which would wipe all that away. But the ancient power of it still dwells among us, the last scrap of medieval mist not yet dispersed by the garish, scorching republican morning.

Even so, I have reluctantly given up on it, though all my instincts side with the Crown.  I like the theory of monarchy, and the way it keeps political figures out of horse-drawn carriages, and away from palace balconies. I thought for years that the monarch was like the king on the chessboard, with little real power of his own—except to keep any other piece from occupying his space. But the Cultural Revolution has as usual been too clever and too subtle for us conservatives. Instead of being shoutily republican, as they used to be, the radicals have instead subverted the monarchy and made it their own.  Her Majesty is the Queen of Cool. A few years ago, when the Olympics came to London the heir of Edward III, of the first Elizabeth, and of Queen Victoria was somehow cajoled into taking part in a comedy sketch with the actor who plays James Bond, as part of the opening ceremony.  We have long been warned against letting daylight in on magic, but this was not just daylight but a theatrical spotlight. How could she do this thing? The Sovereign is also supposed to have no politics, but from time to time blurts out some politically correct remark, multicultural and miles to the left of me and many others. Beginning with small steps, this process recently reached completion. Almost every major member of the Royal Family has now endorsed the belief that climate change is man-made and that it can be countered only by a radical reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

I don’t care what you think about this issue, or even what the House of Windsor thinks about it privately. It is just that, if the queen endorses it, she makes it non-political and therefore beyond dispute, like the color of the grass and the sky, or the number of weeks in the year.  Nor is there any hope from the next generation. I learned this long ago, in an incident I can describe now only because somebody else made it public, so freeing me from a vow of silence.

The Prince of Wales was interested in a book I had written, The Abolition of Britain. He wished to discuss it with me. I gathered this from the person in my newspaper’s office who in those days handled our complex relations with the Royal apparatus. I got the impression he found the whole business quite funny, but he did his duty soberly and advisedly. He was mainly concerned that, if invited to tea with the Heir to the Throne, I would not blab. I assured him that I would not blab, reckoning the experience would be worth it even if I could only tell my wife. In that case, he said, I should expect to hear soon. For some weeks I wondered what form the summons would take—a discreet telephone call, a letter on creamy, thick paper, a tiny piece of embossed pasteboard, delivered by a footman. But I never did hear.

Silence thickened into blankness, blankness into the certainty that the whole thing was off, though I had definitely not blabbed. Something else had gone wrong. Only years later did the Labour M.P. and historian Tristram Hunt publicly reveal what had happened. He wrote in a magazine article that the prince’s aides had to "work hard to prevent the meeting."  That is to say, the Prince had lost his nerve. Well, at least they had to work hard to get him to cave in. I enjoy thinking of them nagging a reluctant Charles into abandoning the encounter, perhaps over many weeks.

Apparently the problem was my lack of respect for the Blair Creature, who was then the prime minister. If the heir to the throne was known to have met me, it would apparently be seen as a breach of Crown impartiality, or so these aides argued. Whereas Royal endorsements of the government’s Irish policy, or of Green initiatives, or of multiculturalism, were not. Goodness, in the years that followed the unashamed terrorist chieftain Martin McGuinness would be invited to Windsor Castle to dine, in white tie and tails.

Well, I am still a supporter of monarchy in principle, as if it mattered what I thought in post-revolutionary England. But the recent appointment (personally by the queen) of one Anthony Blair to the Order of the Garter, perhaps the noblest order of chivalry left in the world, suggests that the queen herself has more or less given up on the idea. I have tried to think of any equally ridiculous and incongruous thing, in Britain or the United States. It is a bit like appointing Fred Flintstone to the Supreme Court, or making Donald Trump a cardinal, only worse. But my imagination, normally reasonably good, has failed. I just cannot come up with anything which is both as sinister and as ridiculous. God save the queen. Nobody else will.