FOCUS: Golden Jubilee - My Prime Ministers and I... ; the Jubilee Celebrations Begin Formally This Week When the Queen Dines at Downing Street with Her 10th Prime Minister and His Four Surviving Predecessors. William Shawcross Reports on a Special Relationship

By Shawcross, William | The Independent (London, England), April 28, 2002 | Go to article overview
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FOCUS: Golden Jubilee - My Prime Ministers and I... ; the Jubilee Celebrations Begin Formally This Week When the Queen Dines at Downing Street with Her 10th Prime Minister and His Four Surviving Predecessors. William Shawcross Reports on a Special Relationship


Shawcross, William, The Independent (London, England)


Dinner in Downing Street is something of a tradition for the Queen. Her first was in April 1955 on the eve of the resignation of her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, when the old statesman proposed "a toast which I used to enjoy drinking during the years when I was a cavalry subaltern in the reign of Your Majesty's great- great-grandmother, Queen Victoria". By contrast, Tony Blair, her host at No 10 tomorrow night at the start of her Golden Jubilee celebrations, was not even born when she came to the throne.

But he and the other guests - the other four living prime ministers of the 10 who have served her - Edward Heath, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major - are bound, whatever their party and personality, by the link that each has had with the monarch, especially through the regular Tuesday meeting of the Queen and Prime Minister.

The continuity is remarkable. Old footage included in a new BBC1 television series shows Harold Wilson and Tony Blair each climbing the staircase at Buckingham Palace to the same Audience Room for their weekly meetings with her. Wilson, her first Labour Prime Minister, relished their talks and said: "The fact that there is somebody, different, separate, uncommitted, whose only concern is to see that Parliament and government reflect the decision of her people - that is something which one just doesn't have in presidential states. And that is one of the two great advantages that Britain has. The second great advantage is that she happens to be the person filling that role, with her vast experience, and is completely trusted by everybody from all parties."

Wilson's sudden resignation in March 1976 stunned the country but not, it seems the Queen; he had told her of his plans back in September 1975 while he and his wife, Mary, had tea with her in a log cabin at Balmoral. The resignation led to acres of press speculation, much of it disobliging; the Queen wanted to allow him to leave his office with dignity and her private secretary suggested she attend a farewell dinner at Downing Street as she had with Churchill. Wilson was at first taken aback by the proposal but immensely flattered; the dinner was a great success and the Queen raised a laugh when she said that it was nice for the two tenants of the tied cottages at either end of the Mall to get together.

Wilson's successor, James Callaghan, was touched by the Queen. He said famously that what she gave her prime ministers was "not friendship but friendliness". On one occasion she gave him a bit more - as they walked around the Palace garden, she picked flowers for his buttonhole; he was pleased. For her Silver Jubilee in 1977, which was marked by an outpouring of popular affection, Callaghan thought the Cabinet should give her a present.

One minister apparently suggested a clock set in a lump of Welsh coal, another a saddle - she said she would like a coffee pot.

Audrey Callaghan went out to buy it and the Cabinet went to Buckingham Palace to present it. According to Roy Hattersley, the Queen made a speech of thanks in which she thanked Callaghan for not giving her what Lord Salisbury had given Queen Victoria on a similar occasion - a portrait of himself. They all laughed. Afterwards, she told Callaghan that she had had the names of all the cabinet members inscribed on the base of the pot - "a rather nice gesture", he thought.

The one hiccup in the Jubilee from Callaghan's point of view was when the Queen spoke to both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall (as she will again next Tuesday). At a time when the Government was planning devolution for Scotland and Wales, she said, that while she understood Scottish and Welsh aspirations, "I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland."

This almost sounded as if she was opposing devolution; Callaghan was alarmed and asked his office whether No 10 had approved the speech beforehand.

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FOCUS: Golden Jubilee - My Prime Ministers and I... ; the Jubilee Celebrations Begin Formally This Week When the Queen Dines at Downing Street with Her 10th Prime Minister and His Four Surviving Predecessors. William Shawcross Reports on a Special Relationship
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