Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Royals' Revenge: John Lloyd Reveals the Full Story of the Funeral of the Queen's Mother and How, to the Fury of Three Commonwealth Prime Ministers, It Put Elected Politicians Firmly in Their Place. (Cover Story)

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Royals' Revenge: John Lloyd Reveals the Full Story of the Funeral of the Queen's Mother and How, to the Fury of Three Commonwealth Prime Ministers, It Put Elected Politicians Firmly in Their Place. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

The most breathtaking tricks are those invisible to the eye. A breathtaking trick has been played on us, and it is invisible largely because we have been made to see it as a natural thing. The trick is to convince us that an elected politician should be placed lower in the British table of rank than a hereditary monarch, and that all elected politicians should defer to any hereditary aristocrat. That was the major subtext of the lying-in-state and funeral, in April this year, of the Queen's mother, Elizabeth. It is also the major subtext of certain journalists who have accused the Prime Minister's office of lying.

This group of journalists--Peter Oborne of the Spectator, Simon Walters of the Mail on Sunday, together with the editors of those papers and the London Evening Standard--has convinced a large section of the media (the public may be a different matter) that its version of the events in and around Downing Street at the time of the lying-in-state and funeral of the Queen's mother is a truth that demonstrates a rot at the heart of the Labour government. It proves nothing of the sort. It shows, instead, the manoeuvres of the right, maddened by political marginalisation, reaching deeply (and successfully) into a well of atavism and producing a fiction.

That fiction is underpinned by three storylines. First, the Queen's mother was a saint, and her funeral allowed a willing nation to pay obeisance to that fact. Second, the government is defined, and wholly corrupted by, spin -- the deliberate and constant effort, at the highest levels, to distort, misrepresent, gloss over and even lie about the real nature of the policies that the government pursues. Third, Tony Blair is an obsessively arrogant politician who wished to use the funeral of the Queen's mother to parade himself before the public for electoral advantage.

These three storylines have been well prepared by the media -- in the first case, for decades, and in the other two, for years. They represent primarily the views of the right. But the left, particularly the far left, bears some responsibility, too. Because the left sees new Labour as politics and personality shorn of both socialism and substance (in fact, it can reasonably be argued, it is the more substantial for having rid itself of a formal and empty socialism), it is just as keen as the right on the narrative of spin, and of Blairite arrogance.

Because the right has no policy issue within reach on which it can win against the government (and, often, no policy), these subjects take centre stage -- especially as effective promotion of such questions can gain victims, as Stephen Byers's resignation attests. Much of the media now try to portray this government as one in constant crisis, rather as if journalists were covering the melodrama of a soap opera. The despair of politicians with the media's coverage of politics--a despair shared by all parties, though it suits the Conservatives to be largely silent on the matter now, as it suited Labour up until 1997--was reflected in an article by Charles Clarke, the chairman of the Labour Party, in the Times on 12 June, in which he referred to "pious and hypocritical" criticism by the media. But, as he must have expected, the piece became simply further testimony to crisis.

The question of who said what to whom about Blair's role in the lying-in-state of the Queen's mother remains unanswerable, perhaps for ever. The journalists' account (though it originally derived, it seems, from conversations with "sources") depends on the existence of a memorandum from Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Willcocks, whose office of Black Rod makes him responsible for royal protocol. This is said (by Oborne) to be a "long, detailed and scrupulously documented memorandum that revealed the details of how Downing Street tried to establish a bigger role for the Prime Minister". Downing Street's account relies on testimony by its officials, in particular Clare Sumner, a career civil servant, that the contacts between them and Black Rod were designed not to enhance Blair's role, but to discover what his role was, according to protocol. …

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