PUNCHED, ABUSED, CHALLENGED
John Grigg on the 40th anniversary of his (by today's standards) decorous criticism of the Queen THE WORLD is obsessed with anniver- saries. Newspapers find them a never-failing resource, and institutions of every kind thrive on them, particularly for the purpose of fund-raising. Things and people seem to acquire a new interest, or in some cases become interesting for the first time, when they reach certain calendar landmarks.
This has always been true of royalty, part of whose function is to define periods and provide a framework into which the lives of others can be fixed. (L.E. Jones entitled the three volumes of his fine auto- biography A Victorian Boyhood, An Edwar- dian Youth and Georgian Afternoon). There is no better way of getting a map- reference, as it were, for the past than that of learning the dates of kings and queens.
A number of important royal anniver- saries are now occurring or in the offing. The Queen and Prince Philip will cele- brate their golden wedding in November, and the occasion will, presumably, also be celebrated as a public event. Already they have given a garden party at Buckingham Palace for other 'class of 1947' couples. The year of the millennium will, with any luck, be enhanced by celebration of the Queen Mother's 100th birthday. And two years later we should be saluting the Queen's golden jubilee. Meanwhile, the editor of The Spectator, with his keen eye for historical detail, has noticed that this year marks a royal anniversary of a rather different sort, and has asked me to write about it. Forty years ago, in August-September 1957, I was involved in a royal row (in both senses), resulting from an article I had written in a small-circulation monthly, the National and English Review, of which I was owner and editor. The article, on 'The Monarchy Today', appeared in the August issue, and so little did I anticipate any special reac- tion to it that I did not increase the print run. But it was my normal practice to send copies to newspapers and news agencies, in the hope of obtaining the odd mention that might help to promote the magazine. On this occasion the effect was seismic. Within days the story was front-page news all over the world, and my name and face became, for a time, universally familiar. (This was a chastening experience, enabling me to sympathise ever since with those who are in the public eye and sub- ject to constant media attention.) My article was long and written from the standpoint of a convinced, even pas- sionate, monarchist. Though thoroughly serious in intent, I wrote it as a journalist rather than as a political scientist, which in any case I would never claim to be. Some phrases in it tended, therefore, to give a rather false impression of the whole, when quoted out of context. But the principal reason why it created such a sensation was that it contained direct criticism of the Queen (as well as considerable praise), at a time when the general treatment of her in the media ranged from gushy adulation to Shinto-style worship. This most unhealthy climate had prevailed since her accession, and had been intensified by the secular religiosity of the Coronation in 1953. It was completely out of keeping with the traditional British attitude to the monarchy, which has always combined strong loyalty to the institution with a readiness to judge individual members of Loggers working around the clock to provide enough pulp for newspapers to print photographs of Diana, Princess of Wales. the royal family, favourably or unfavourably, on their merits.
My role as a royal critic could be made to seem a bit paradoxical, since I was an Old Etonian and former Guards officer who had twice stood for Parliament as a Conservative. I was also a peer, having succeeded my father as Lord Altrincham in 1955. In reality, there was no contradiction, but media hype is concerned only with superficial appear- ances and trite associations.
The peerage question may be worth a brief digression. I never took my seat in the House of Lords because I was — and remain — entirely opposed to hereditary seats in Parliament. (The hereditary princi- ple as applied to the monarchy is another matter altogether, having its own unique rationale.) In my view, all hereditary peers should be like Irish peers, carrying on a name but without political privileges. The 1963 Act permitting the disclaimer of peer- ages was a bad measure, since it confused the issues of inherited titles and inherited seats. Nevertheless, when the Act was passed I felt honour-bound to disclaim, though it was a bore to have to change my name again and disagreeable to incur any suspicion of filial impiety.
As the controversy developed, it was soon apparent that public opinion at large was not at all what most politicians and editors had supposed it to be. Opinion polls, letters to newspapers and the thousands of letters I received showed that a majority of people at least understood my position, and that on some specific points — notably the out-of- dateness of the Royal Household — my views were strongly supported.
When I was interviewed for ITN by Robin Day, I had a call just before we went on air from Bill Connor (`Cassandra' of the Daily Mirror) who thought I might like to know that the Mirror's letters were running at the rate of 13 to two in my favour. The interview itself was very helpful to me, because the BBC (like the Times, alone among newspapers) was at that stage blacking the controversy. In reply to a question from Day, I was able to make the point that it was right and proper to criti- cise the Queen personally if anything was amiss within the sphere not covered by ministerial responsibility. For all royal mat- ters outside that sphere, such as the com- position of the Royal Household and most important — her role as Head of the Commonwealth, she alone was responsible.
As I was leaving the ITN building (then in Kingsway) after the interview, a member of the League of Empire Loyalists struck me on the face. The blow was quite painful, but luckily — since the incident was cap- tured on film and is recycled from time to time in documentary programmes — I managed to stay upright. The following day the man appeared before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Sir Laurence Dunne, who in fining him for breach of the peace added the unjudicial and inaccurate comment that '95 per cent of the popula- tion of this country were disgusted' by what I had written.
Dunne was not alone among establish- ment figures in condemning me. Another was the archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Geoffrey Fisher, who did me the honour of anathematising me twice, first in the Unit- ed States and again at Heathrow, on his return. Sir Robert Menzies, prime minister of Australia, was another heavyweight denouncer. But most politicians main- tained a prudent silence. Indeed I was told that the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, used his influence as a senior member of a club I belong to to scotch a move to have me expelled from it.
Many people in 'high places' agreed with me, at least in part, but were understandably chary of giving me any support in public. The most striking case in point was a key figure in the Royal Household who arranged to meet me, a few days after the row exploded, at the house of a mutual friend, and whose first words when we were introduced were, 'This is the best thing that has happened to Buckingham Palace in my time.' Our conversation was, of course, pri- vate, and treated as such by me, though it would have been helpful, to say the least, if I had felt free at the time to quote such a remark from such a quarter, even without attribution.
One of the arguments by which I set most store was that the Queen should have residences in other major Commonwealth countries of which she was sovereign, and not merely visit them as an occasional tourist. Air travel gave her scope for a rou- tine unimaginable in Queen Victoria's day. When I put this argument to the courtier he replied, 'You must remember she's a landowner.' I took this to be said with irony, because I could hardly believe that he would regard her ownership of estates in Norfolk and Aberdeenshire, and her habit of spending inordinately long peri- ods on them, as an adequate excuse for missing the opportunity to live as a monarch on the world scale. But in retro- spect I am not so sure. His reformism was, I now think, probably confined to certain aspects of her role in the United Kingdom.
Very few friends, or even acquaintances, turned against me, and most gave me strong moral support behind the scenes, without necessarily agreeing with me. One slight acquaintance, however, wrote me a particularly vicious letter. He was a Rus- sian emigre baron, married to a Yorkshire wool heiress, who lived in a castle in the Scottish Highlands. It gave me some plea- sure to reply to him that if ancien regime Russia had been a free country like Britain, the Romanovs might still be on the throne and he might not be an exile.
Although, as I have said, there was evi- dence that most people roughly under- stood what I was getting at, and with some degree of approval, that still left far too many who misunderstood. The latter included those who mistook me for an anti-monarchist, a varied and particularly vexatious company, ranging from obscu- rantist right-wingers who saw me, quite simply, as a traitor, to republican left- wingers who applauded me for quite the wrong reason. Perhaps the worst of all, from my point of view, were those who, without caring much one way or the other, assumed lazy-mindedly that any criticism of the monarch must imply hostility to the monarchy — as if a literary critic were to be regarded as hostile to literature. Even today I can find myself wincing when someone banteringly refers to 'that time you attacked the monarchy', though this seems to happen less often now than it once did — partly, no doubt, because younger people have never heard of the controversy, but also partly, I like to think, because time has brought a clearer under- standing of it.
One of the first to change his mind as to my motive was an Italian royalist, Com- mendatore Marmiroli, who in August 1957 challenged me to a duel. Informed of this by a reporter and asked what weapons I would choose, I suggested umbrellas (since I happened to be carrying one at the time). Then I heard no more of Marmiroli until I was in Rome for my honeymoon at the end of the following year, when one evening his card was presented to me and I was told he was waiting in the lobby of our hotel. I went downstairs with some apprehension, but when I came face to face with him he folded me in a warm embrace and said he had decided I was a good monarchist after all. We then had an amicable talk and the next day he sent my wife two dozen roses.
Another troublesome, though less funda- mental, misunderstanding that has persisted over the years is the notion that I criticised the Queen's voice. In fact, I never did so, nor would have dreamt of doing so even if I had found her voice in any way objectionable, which was not at all the case. My criticism was directed at the content and style of her speeches, which seemed to me quite inap- propriate to her. George V, I said, 'did not write his own speeches, yet they were always in character; they seemed to be a natural emanation from and expression of the man'. (One of the most famous, the King's speech opening the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1921 — which led to the Truce and the Treaty — was, as it happens, written by my father.) The Queen's speeches in the early years of her reign lacked the same quality of authenticity; they were prim little sermons that did her no justice.
The climate today is very different from 40 years ago. Now it is open season for anybody to say anything about members of the royal family, and to treat the monarchy itself with rudeness or contempt. In these drastically altered circumstances people sometimes describe what I wrote in 1957 as mild or even tame, and so indeed it may appear by contrast with the scurrility that now prevails. All the same, I do feel that my arguments had some force, and were expressed as forcibly as was consistent with the decencies of debate. Some of them raised points that are still outstanding, notably whether a Royal Household largely staffed, at its higher levels, by white mem- bers of the landed and professional classes in this country adequately reflects the char- acter of a worldwide Commonwealth, or even that of an ethnically mixed Britain. But some of the criticisms no longer apply, and anyway there will be plenty to cheer about when the Queen reaches her golden jubilee in 2002, as I trust she will.