For 70 years, Queen Elizabeth has met weekly with 14 prime ministers. Her 15th will appear soon before her for her perfunctory invitation to serve as Great Britain’s top governing official.
The young Queen started with the irrepressible Winston Churchill, a lovable mentor and menace, a person who roamed the world stage as a fierce advocate for the United Kingdom. His ego was huge. His leadership as prime minister during World War II, alongside King George VI, the Queen’s father, epitomized British courage and steadfastness. Queen Elizabeth liked and admired him, writing Churchill a lengthy letter upon his retirement.
Churchill’s most recent successor, Boris Johnson, may have been as gifted an orator in the style of Sir Winston but sorely lacked the ability to govern without galvanizing scandal and inattention to rules and ethics. Any comparison between Johnson and Churchill would be akin to comparing Donald Trump to Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Dwight D. Eisenhower.
I so want to know the Queen’s opinions about the men and two women who briefed her on a weekly basis. Did she trust them? Did she consider them genuinely concerned about Britain or mostly about themselves?
What did she tell her diary every night?
We will never know. We can only guess she respected some and found others pompous and self-absorbed. At first perhaps intimidated by the Oxford-Cambridge-educated PMs when she ascended the Crown at the age of 25–considering her minimal formal education—she gradually became more confident. Her knowledge and experience as the monarch qualified her as an equal, if not more so, with the prime ministers as time went on,
While she has no constitutional authority, beyond “inviting” the just elected PM to govern the United Kingdom and opening each session of Parliament, she has unrivaled stature as the symbol of her country and the undivided attention of the country’s leaders to answer her questions and accept her insights.
PMs would be foolhardy to ignore or underestimate her. Her popularity supersedes theirs.
Back to Johnson. I suspect his charm and swashbuckling style had no impact on her. He likely toned down his bluster and showmanship. I wonder if his inability to tell the truth was evident during their weekly audiences.
As the prime ministers sat with her over 70 years, they found a Queen obsessed with serving her country. To her, duty is sacrosanct. No one can question her commitment to her countrymen and -women.
During her long reign, she has met 13 out of 14 United States presidents, not including Lyndon Baines Johnson (for unknown reasons). Again, I wonder what she thought about the American men and their wives. The diary knows. If only the Queen’s private observations were not so.
What did she learn about these powerful politicians? Was she reassured or unimpressed? Was she hopeful (or not) about the “special” relationship between the UK and U.S.?
When the tall, handsome Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy called upon her, I wonder how she gauged his competence and bearing. I would guess that she was impressed. Did she feel the same way about Bill and Hilary Clinton? Speculation abounds.
I must admit I am an Anglophile and a person who views the British royalty with respect. I learned during a year as a graduate student in England that anti-royalist sentiment is prevalent in Britain. The cost of subsidizing the royal family is bothersome to a British segment living lives of enforced frugality.
I consider the Queen’s value inestimable. She represents stability. She symbolizes old-fashioned values like service above self and unerring dedication to a country still striving to be a force in the world.
At 96, plagued by normal health restrictions, Queen Elizabeth is facing the end of a tumultuous reign. She has confronted the Cold War, diminution of the British empire, unpredictable prime ministers, family dysfunction, the death of Princess Diana, economic turmoil and a worldwide pandemic. She has endured unrelenting media attention and cinematic portrayals of her and her family.
She must deal soon with a new prime minister, her 15th and maybe her last. More grist for her diary.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.