The Trouble with HRH

Christopher Hitchens

  • Princess Margaret: A Biography by Theo Aronson
    O’Mara, 336 pp, £16.99, February 1997, ISBN 1 85479 248 2

Amid all the wretched declension of the British royal family, many people seem willing to suspend their general disapproval, disappointment, boredom, nausea – you name it – in the case of our Sovereign Lady the Queen. Unselfish, dutiful, serious, modest, faithful unto death, she rises above the showbiz values, disco ambitions and petty neuroses of her clan and brood. But does she truly deserve such a dispensation? Monarchs may be able to elude responsibility for many things, but surely the state of the monarchy is not among them. And the Queen made at least two decisions of her own which contributed to the present zoo-like condition of her relatives. The first was her choice of consort: the hawkish and chilly authoritarian who made such a hell of his offspring’s childhood. The second was her resolution, so pious and so carefully meditated, to sacrifice her only sister’s happiness for the greater cause of family values and the high duty of setting an example. This is the House of Windsor, not the House of Atreus (let’s keep our sense of proportion), but still, here if anywhere was its original sin. Does Brenda, even now, look wistfully back on a time when marriage to a divorced war hero was considered the height of scandal and required the officiousness of the aptly-named Cantuar?

I wanted so much to be the first person to write about ‘the Royals’ and not to employ Bagehot’s rotund injunction about the danger of letting in ‘daylight upon magic’. But the damn phrase is inescapable. The fascination of Princess Margaret, I suspect, is that she was the forerunner of the public, vulgar Windsor style: now such a drag but then such a sensation. If you were a commoner of average social mobility in London in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, there was a better than average chance that you would have met her in some club or at some party, or even on the pavement outside. Martin Amis remembers her showing up at the end of a dinner, on the arm of Nicholas Soames, and seating herself at the piano to sing ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’ (to which, of course, the only answer was ‘no he ain’t’). Two members of the New Left Review editorial board, known to me, were confronted by her at some do or another. It was the fashion in those days to address everybody as ‘man’, and they concluded later that HRH hadn’t objected to this informality because she thought they were saying ‘Ma’am’. I myself cannoned into her, flesh-tinted and well into the gin (her, I mean), as I entered a cocktail party. She was unescorted, and seized on me as a new arrival. ‘Know anything about china?’ she demanded. I truly did not know whether she meant porcelain or the Middle Kingdom, and was very grateful for whatever rescue eventuated. There she was, I mean to say, going around the place letting in daylight on magic like billy-oh. In those pre-Tampax, pre-Squidgy, pre-bulimic days there was an element of antic subversion involved, as well as some unhappiness and boredom and, one suspects, a teeny tincture of the vengeful.

Mr Aronson is the author of a much more interesting royal book, about ‘Prince Eddie’ and the Cleveland Street homosexual racket, but he has the soul of a courtier and writes about being given ‘audience’ and even being ‘received’. This lends a certain ludicrous tone even to his gravest chapters. (At one point he describes the present Queen Mother as ‘blessed with typically Celtic good looks: black hair, blue eyes and a skin like cream’, when any modern student of the subject could have begun the sentence in the same way and gone on with: ‘gingery pube-like rug, yellowish eyes and a hide like a pizza’.) But he is a writer of the pre-daylight era. He describes with near-solemnity the situation at Glamis Castle on the night of Margaret’s birth. In 1930 it was still a requirement that a minister of the Crown, usually the Home Secretary, should be present for any royal birth. (This ‘ancient tradition’ dated back to the reign of King James II and the rumour about the ‘warming-pan baby’ delivered covertly to his consort, Mary of Modena.) So J.R. Clynes, Home Secretary to Ramsay MacDonald, had to journey to Glamis Castle and wait for 16 days for the waters to break. He passed the time profitably enough being shown around the local estates by Lady Airlie, a lady-in-waiting, who was pleased to find ‘under his homely exterior a deeply sensitive mind, touchingly appreciative of beauty’. In the company of the Ceremonial Secretary of the Home Office, Clynes was able duly to vouch that the royal parturition was on the level, and that the loyal bonfires could be lit. Aronson concludes this story – a profile in capsule of the whole Ramsay MacDonald experience – with a mixture of lyricism and foreboding:

Particularly gratifying to the local people was the fact that the baby had been born in Scotland. Because of this Scottish birth, Princess Margaret was often to be described, in the years ahead, as being typically ‘Stuart’, in contrast to what was regarded, in the same journalistic shorthand, as Princess Elizabeth’s stolid, more ‘Hanoverian’ appearance. And indeed, for a while, the younger princess’s looks did seem to reflect something of the elegance and romance of the ill-starred Stuart dynasty. Only in the face of Princess Margaret’s increasingly Hanoverian appetites did such references begin to die.

Hanoverian appetites! I like the ring of it. But all the poor thing wanted to do (then at least) was to marry a dashing group captain who had been married before. The humiliation of Mr Clynes was as nothing to the imperial time-wasting that went on as a result. Entire Cabinet meetings and sessions of Parliament were devoted to the question. Under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772 (another piece of mystic and antique tradition, designed to prevent the ghastly offspring of George III from letting down the side) the Sovereign’s consent was required for a marriage of any member of the family who was younger than 25. After the quarter-century mark had been reached, things became simpler. All that was required was the consent of the British and Dominion Parliaments. But the year was 1953, and there was a Coronation on the way, and Canon 107 of the Church of England’s 1603 doctrines expressly forbade divorce, so it was thought better to inter the issue with the maximum of surreptitiousness and dishonesty. After Churchill and all his private secretaries had discussed it exhaustively – the latter overruling the initial sympathies of the former – and after the Cabinet had been brought in, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and after the Attorney-General had done a canvass of Commonwealth prime ministers, it was decided to post Townsend to Brussels and, here being the devilish cunning and mature statecraft of the thing, not to tell Princess Margaret the secret. She was shipped off on a royal progress through Rhodesia with the Queen Mother, and not given the tidings until she had been radiant at the Rhodes Centenary Exhibition in Bulawayo.

She threw such a fit at this point that, later in the annus horribilis of 1953, it was determined to amend the Regency Act. Privy Council meetings, drafting committees, hugger-mugger Select Committees, portentous exchanges in both Houses – the lot. The Regency Act – wafting us back to the tradition-laden year of 1937 – provided that if the Queen croaked or went barmy then Princess Margaret would be Regent until Charles turned 18. As amended, it would now provide for Prince Philip to fill the slot. It was a clear demotion. The yellow press, in an early and faint-hearted version of mutinies against discretion still to come, asked John Bullishly why a foreign-born consort should assume precedence over a daughter of King George VI.

But this was as nothing to the squalor and piety which marked the Year of Grace 1955. In August, Margaret turned 25 and tried to pick up the threads with Townsend. More Cabinet meetings, more crisis sessions at Lambeth and Buckingham Palaces, and at Balmoral. The Marquess of Salisbury threatened to resign if the match was allowed by the Government. Sir Anthony Eden boarded planes and flew hither and yon to talk in grave tones to the Queen. The Queen pointedly took all her dogs for a walk on one occasion, in order to avoid having to talk to her sister on such a distasteful subject. The shivering girl was told that if she persisted in her folly, a Bill of Renunciation would be placed before Parliament, and would require her exile from the realm as well as the loss of all titles and income. Finally, at a meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, she crumbled and said she’d give up the man in her life. The prelate, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, rather outdid himself for the occasion. ‘What a wonderful person,’ he exclaimed, ‘the Holy Spirit is!’ Here we see, in early prefiguration, both the chill ‘dysfunction’ and ‘denial’ practised by the Windsors, and the degeneration of the C of E into the cracker-motto ‘Jesus Movement’.

Of course, if J.R. Clynes had been present at Glamis for the birth of a baby boy, Margaret would have become king in 1953. Such are the beauties of primogeniture. Having become a black ewe instead, she began to live a little and cultivate a few affectations. The cigarette-holder, the decanter, the reputation of being dreadfully hard on the staff and just a little brittle with the family ‘firm’. (By the way, the Duke of York – so Aronson instructs us – was known in the Twenties as ‘the Foreman’ for his supposed interest in industrial matters, so the rather trying business of the Royal Family comparing itself to a going concern is not as recent as some may think. In fact, it’s almost a hallowed tradition.) She behaved with wonderful surliness at occasions of duty. Nancy Mitford related one such fiasco: a dinner in honour of the Princess in Paris in 1959:

Dinner was at 8.30 and at 8.30 Princess Margaret’s hairdresser arrived, so we waited for hours while he concocted a ghastly coiffure. She looked like a huge ball of fur on two well-developed legs. Shortest dress I ever saw – a Frenchman said it begins so low and ends so soon. In fact the whole appearance was excessively common.

Lady Jebb, the wife of the British Ambassador, told her diary that the trouble with HRH was that she insisted on being treated as a princess without showing any willingness to shoulder the responsibilities of being one. Where has one heard that recently? The Establishment says things like this with an air of complete assurance and rectitude, even while it insists on maintaining a mediocre extended family which breeds more people than are necessary for any conceivable ‘job’. Most European royal houses lost their thrones in part for the simple reason that there were too many redundant princelings and princesses. The House of Windsor has not been exempted but then it made Margaret surplus to requirements from the start.

Not long before the Townsend business, she had been sent on a tour of the Caribbean. Sir Hugh Foot, then Governor of Jamaica, received instructions that she was not to share a dance with any ‘coloured person’. (Foot had been through this before. Confiding his support for elections in Jamaica to the visiting Princess Alice, he had been told that he was talking ‘balderdash’.) From what one hears of, say, the Queen Mother’s admiration for Ian Smith, there was a good deal of this sort of thing in royal circles. So it would be nice to think that there was another element of revenge in Princess Margaret’s later decision to head for Mustique when things got tough. Or perhaps, like Margot Beste-Chetwynde with her darling Chokey, she just enjoyed creating a frisson. One used to hear the most extraordinary things about one of the barmen on the island ... Unfortunately, Aronson doesn’t keep the promise of his early hint about ‘appetites’, and he adds little to the dreary tale of Aunt Margo’s marriage to Snowdon and fling with Llewellyn (sounds like a gruelling tour of Welsh hillsides). I had not known before that Wallis Simpson, on being brought the news of the Princess’s engagement to a commoner, said: ‘At least we’re keeping up with the Armstrong-Joneses.’ And apparently it is true that the dashing Snowdon once yelled at her: ‘You look like a Jewish manicurist and I hate you.’ Quite a facer for a Hanoverian.

Her vile treatment by the dynasty prompts one’s sympathy every now and then, but she generally succeeds in dissipating it by reserving all her own sympathy for herself. Her performances in America, for example, have been uniformly repellent. She referred to the Irish as ‘pigs’ during a visit to Chicago and then tried to get out of it – first by saying that she’d said ‘Irish jigs’ and then by taking refuge behind ‘anti-terrorist’ security measures. At a Hollywood dinner, where she had insisted on having Barry Manilow as her guest of choice, she flew into a rage when then Governor Jerry Brown called her ‘Your Highness’ instead of ‘Your Royal Highness’. (It’s a long time, it seems to me, since monarchists were wont to boast of the credit that the Royals brought upon us overseas.) Had she been the elder sister, or even brother, she would probably have been no less hellish in the top job. It will soon seem – surely it does already seem – quite astonishing that so much Establishment time has been spent on the ‘containment’ of an averagely-volatile woman from a disadvantaged family. All that the daylight proves is that there was no bloody magic to begin with.