The Queen, a Christmas party, and the myth of the apolitical head of state

Friday 22 April 2011

One of the principal arguments made by royalists – it came up again on Newsnight last night – is that the royal family are ‘above politics’. Unlike an elected President, who might or might not be a professional politician, its members are supposed to have been ‘bred’ to the job – and aware of the crucial importance in a constitutional monarchy of not expressing political opinions.

As I said during the programme, this is not my experience of the present monarch. Two or three years ago, I was at a Christmas party at Buckingham Palace and a courtier asked if I was prepared to meet the Queen. When I said I was, I was asked to wait in a corner of the room with several other people while she was brought in.

She spoke first to someone in our little group and he then introduced me, explaining that I’m a novelist. I smiled warmly and said ‘hello’, but I didn’t curtsy. The Queen stared at me, said absolutely nothing – blanked me in other words - and moved on to the next person.

He introduced his partner, who happened to be Turkish, and the Queen remarked that she and Philip had been on a State visit to Turkey. The Turkish woman said how pleased she was about the visit, and they talked for a moment or two.

Then the Queen turned back to the person who’d tried to introduce me. ‘The EU is getting awfully large – 28 countries,’ she said.

‘It’s actually 27, ma’am,’ he replied, ‘but we’re hoping that Turkey will come in soon.’

‘Oh no’, the Queen responded, ‘we don’t want Turkey coming in for a long time.’

Two things strike me about this. The first is that the royal family are dependent on protocol, and the Queen certainly wasn’t ready in this instance to greet a British citizen who departed from it. The second is how quick she was to express a hugely controversial political opinion in the presence of people she didn’t know.

I don’t know whether other people have had similar experiences. But I would like to have an elected head of state who’s ready to mix easily with anyone who has good manners, regardless of political differences.  And I don’t believe for a moment that the present monarch is ‘above politics’.

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