John Sutherland

  • CounterBlasts No 10. The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain’s Favourite Fetish by Christopher Hitchens
    Chatto, 42 pp, £2.99, January 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3555 7
  • The Prince by Celia Brayfield
    Chatto, 576 pp, £12.95, March 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3357 0
  • The Maker’s Mark by Roy Hattersley
    Macmillan, 558 pp, £13.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 333 47032 X
  • A Time to Dance by Melvyn Bragg
    Hodder, 220 pp, £12.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 340 52911 3

Deference to royalty in this country is enforced by a judicial and popular savagery which is always there but only occasionally glimpsed. The glimpses are instructive. In 1937 the diplomat Geoffrey Dennis wrote a Coronation Commentary for Heinemann. This was a reasoned defence of the monarchy – then in a very rocky state. Dennis repeated, and deprecated, the widespread gossip that Mrs Simpson had been the Duke of Windsor’s mistress before marriage and that England’s recently abdicated king sometimes drank too much. A writ was served and the action heard before the Lord Chief Justice, who declared in court that ‘these particular libels, a jury might think, appear almost to invite a thoroughly efficient horse-whipping.’ Author and publisher escaped the lash and merely had to pulp their book and pay huge damages. The episode served notice on the book trade to tread very carefully in matters royal, which they duly did.

Twenty years later, in July 1957, the young Lord Altrincham wrote an article ‘The Monarchy Today’ in the National and English Review, a journal he owned. It is doubtful whether any other editor in the country would have touched the thing. Altrincham called the Queen ‘a pain in the neck’, ridiculed her fatuous ‘my husband and I’ locution, and alleged that she was the mindless mouthpiece of a set of court nonentities ‘of the tweedy sort’. He concluded: ‘The personality conveyed by the words which are put in her mouth is that of a priggish schoolgirl, captain of the hockey team, a prefect, and a recent candidate for confirmation.’

Eden had been kicked out six months before and Macmillan was busy dismantling an empire which the country no longer had the stomach to rule. Monarchism might have seemed as lost a cause as imperialism in summer 1957. As it turned out, the British people could live quite serenely with being a second-rate ex-colonial power, but they would not stand for Altrincham’s mild lèse-majesté. He was subjected to even more abuse from the British press and public than Nasser or John Foster Dulles. In a widely photographed incident, Altrincham was physically assaulted. His assailant shouted to the pressmen he had summoned to watch: ‘This is for insulting the Queen!’ The papers – except the Times, which on advice from the palace kept a ‘dignified’ silence – joined in the hounding. The whole country became a horsewhip.

That autumn, the Queen made a state visit to the United States. Her mission was delicate, in view of America’s treachery over Suez. Fences needed mending. To coincide with the royal visit, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a piece for the Saturday Evening Post entitled ‘Does England really need a monarchy?’ Muggeridge’s article mixed irreverent barbs with some Bagehotian conclusions about the Queen being better than the alternative. The House of Windsor, he was probably the first to note, ‘has become a kind of royal soap opera’. It was hardly high treason. But in passing, Muggeridge noted that aristocrats with any pretension to style found Queen Elizabeth II ‘dowdy, frumpish and banal’.

The epithets – and Muggeridge’s disloyalty abroad – were picked up by the English press and he joined Altrincham in the pillory. They received some 2200 letters, the majority anonymous and vile – many of them from evidently respectable sections of society. Altrincham was sent a human turd in an OHMS envelope. Muggeridge, who had lost his son in an accident eighteen months earlier, received one letter saying: ‘With reference to your son who was killed ... it was all for the best. Eventually he would have found out that not only did you not know who his father was, but neither did his mother.’ The two anti-royalists were accused monotonously of being ‘bastards’ (literally and loosely meant), homosexuals, communists and Judases. Never believe it when they tell you it’s unfair to attack the royals because ‘they can’t answer back.’ The royalists will.

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