Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother by Sir Gerald Kelly
"Have you read Arthur Koestler’s last book?” wrote Queen Elizabeth of England to the author Sir Osbert Sitwell in November 1943 about Koestler’s Arrival and Departure, which covered his life as a Hungarian refugee. “I did not like it quite so much as Darkness at Noon.” Another of her favorite writers was the Jewish immigrant to New York Leo Rosten, and she was deeply opposed to Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts as they rampaged through the East End of London in the late 1930s. In 1975 she wrote to her son-in-law thanking him for sending her Duncan Williams’s book The Trousered Apes: Sick Literature in a Sick Society, an attack on Modernism in contemporary art and culture, commenting that “It is so terribly easy for people to get so used to reading and seeing violence & vulgarity that they come to accept it as normal.”
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother is usually written off as a socialite who had no significant input into or thoughts about politics, yet, as these expertly edited collected letters show, she was in fact an intelligent, thinking Tory who understood the importance of the culture wars and was almost always on the right—and Right—side of the great issues of her day.1
As the first letter in these pages was written in February 1909 and the last one over nine decades later in August 2001, this book covers a huge period of time, in which the Second World War—when she was constantly supporting her beloved husband King George VI (“Bertie”)—necessarily emerges as the most important part. Adolf Hitler called her “the most dangerous woman in Europe,” of which there can hardly be a higher accolade in the twentieth century, and her work maintaining morale—especially in London during the 1940–41 Blitz—means that she will always have a beloved place in the hearts of her countrymen. But this book also shows that as well as being an irreproachable figurehead, she was also a fine ideological Tory to the very marrow of her bones.
Of the interwar disarmament policy of the National Government that nearly caused such disaster in 1940, she is quoted in this book as telling the historian D. R. Thorpe, “They had practically got rid of the army, stupid idiots.” She deeply opposed the defense cuts that forced the regiments of which she was honorary colonel to keep contracting into single battalions, and then amalgamating, and then disappearing altogether. “I do hope that we shall stay well armed after this war,” she wrote to Queen Mary in January 1945, “for it is the only way to stop another one.”
Her brothers Patrick, Jock, Fergus, and Michael all served in the Great War, and Fergus was killed serving with the Black Watch at the battle of Loos in September 1915. She never called the Germans anything but “the Huns” thereafter, even after they became Britain’s allies in NATO. When a statue was controversially raised to the Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, the wartime head of Bomber Command responsible for flattening German city after city, she insisted on unveiling it.
Over the issues of government regulation and high taxation she was similarly sound. Writing from a royal tour of Southern Rhodesia in July 1953, she says, “The country is very cheerful, hardworking & loyal & English, full of young, eager people, who are going to make a great country of it and no death duties!” After the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson called a general election in February 1966, the Queen Mother left Prince Charles in no doubt as to whose side she was on, saying that “The socialist government have already done quite a lot of legislation, so one hopes they won’t plunge into much more. There are rather too many rules, regulations, and taxes that one feels the people are rather over burdened.”
They were indeed, and when Margaret Thatcher finally came to power in May 1979 committed to rolling back the frontiers of the State, she had no heartier supporter than the Queen Mother, who nonetheless had to hide her overt support out of deference to the constitutional obligation of the Royal Family to stay politically neutral. Yet she once gave Mrs. Thatcher a brooch, and, as this book records:
Queen Elizabeth admired Thatcher for her patriotism and her robust approach to the problems of Britain. At private meals, Queen Elizabeth amused her friends by lowering her glass out of sight to “toast” those of whom she disapproved, such as some Socialist or Liberal politicians, and raising it to those who she favored, like General de Gaulle or Mrs. Thatcher.
Her admiration did not extend to de Gaulle’s countrymen far beyond the general himself, however: “I like their sense of humour,” she wrote of the French, “it’s so delicious, and yet, how can one trust them?”
When the Social Democrat party was formed in 1983, Queen Elizabeth wrote to a friend, “I do hope that I was not too outspoken at lunch about that particular party!”—which implies that she probably had been—adding that she felt “a bit uncertain” about anyone who would “invent a ‘Social’ (what’s that) ‘Democratic’ (equally mysterious) party.” Her suspicions about the misuse of the word “social” postdated Friedrich von Hayek’s classic denunciation of the phenomenon, of course, but also echoed it. Her economic beliefs certainly cleaved to the Hayekian rather than the Keynesian mold, as is shown by her January 1938 letter to her great friend D’Arcy Osborne, the British Minister to the Vatican and future Duke of Leeds: “I listened to Mr. Roosevelt’s speech, & thought it rather boring. Rather the stuff we used to hear from old Ramsay [MacDonald, the Labour prime minister], [Philip] Snowden [MacDonald’s chancellor of the exchequer], [another Labour politician J. H.] Thomas, etc. in the long ago. Higher-wages-let-people-buy-more+therefore-it-benefits-the-whole-community & so on.” Her skepticism of prime-the-pump economics was obvious.
Whilst this book is by no means primarily about politics, and there are far more letters written to people with names like the Honourable Fenella Hepburn-Stuart-Forbes-Trefusis than there are to politicians—the last letter is to Prince Charles thanking him for his birthday present of “a huge and heavenly Bath Towel”—nonetheless it does remind us of the Queen Mother’s interest in conservative politics and her political incorrectness. She proudly described herself as an “anti-feminist,” and believing it was “a crime for women to take jobs that men can do as well.” She also despised Modernism in architecture, hoping that the rebuilding of London after the Blitz “should certainly be in harmony” with the fine façades of the past. It is London’s tragedy that no one listened. She was also a stickler for “decent English” being written in the newspapers.
On one of the very few occasions when the Queen Mother had any significant direct input into great political events, however, she and her husband the King got the Munich Crisis badly wrong constitutionally; they even took Neville Chamberlain out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to celebrate the agreement the prime minister had just signed with Hitler, despite it being the subject of a vote in the Commons and opposed by the Labour and Liberal parties. Although she hardly influenced events, the Queen Mother was certainly at the heart of them. She sat in on Churchill’s audiences with her husband, something that Prince Philip was not allowed to do after the Queen’s accession in 1952. Her support of her husband during the war totally expunged her early mistake over not entirely trusting Churchill, who had after all only four years earlier demonstrated deplorable lack of judgment by supporting King Edward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor) at the time of the Abdication Crisis.
When Churchill lost the July 1945 General Election by a landslide to Labour’s Clement Attlee, whom Queen Elizabeth thought “wouldn’t strike one as a star, but he was a practical little man,” she wrote to her mother-in-law Queen Mary:
The election has been rather a shock, and I think that Bertie felt it very much, as Winston has been such a great support and comfort all through these terrible years of war. He is a great man, of great vision, and his leadership has meant so much to so many. People’s memories are short, alas!, and one must try now to build up another good, sound government. But the material is not too inspiring.
That material had to come entirely from the Labour party, of which she had written to D’Arcy Osborne in March 1924, “I am extremely anti-Labour. They are so apart from fairies and owls and bluebells & Americans & all the things I like. If they agree with me, I know they are pretending—in fact I believe everything is a pretence to them.” She added five days later, “I think the Labour Party is narrow minded and snobbish.”
Her reference to Americans as among “the things I like” proves how unsnobbish was this daughter of the Fourteenth Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, some of whose titles, such as the very Shakespearean-sounding Master of Glamis, dated back to the fifteenth century. Despite growing up in a country and hailing from a class where sneering anti-Americanism was rife, the Queen Mother was adamantly pro-American even before her successful visit to the U.S. and Canada in June 1939. Writing of “the dear old U.S.” to the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Anthony Acland, on the half-century of that visit, she reminisced how “The shadow of Hitler was looming over us at home in England, and it was wonderful to find such support and understanding in both those great countries & one felt less alone.” She recalled to Acland how, when going to divine worship while staying with FDR at Hyde Park, “we saw a large notice outside the Church saying ‘Church of the President,’ and under it some wag had written ‘Formerly God’s.’ ”
Amongst the more inspiring “material” with which Clement Attlee had to work in creating a government after the 1945 General Election was his attorney general, Sir Hartley (later Lord) Shawcross, the forensically brilliant head of the British legal delegation at the Nuremberg Trials the next year. He would have been proud of the superb editing job his son William has done while choosing from the several thousand letters that the Queen Mother wrote those couple of hundred which best illustrate her charm, wit, steeliness, interest in the world—and truly devout conservatism.
1Counting One’s Blessings: The Selected Letters of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, William Shawcross, editor; Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 688 pages, $30.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 6, on page 77
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