THE Queen does not give interviews and so has always presented an enigma to the press, which is forced to rely on ‘well-placed sources inside the Palace’ or to fall back on its own conjectures. Such conjectures are naturally coloured by writers’ political sympathies. During the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, 1979-1990, it was commonplace, especially in the Left-wing press, to assume that she and the Queen would have had a difficult relationship: how would Her Majesty, courteous and reserved, have coped with this highly ambitious, forceful female prime minister during their weekly meetings over those 11 years?
I was glad that Jake Kerridge, in his review of Philip: The Final Portrait by Gyles Brandreth, in last Sunday’s Telegraph, includes this detail from the book that ‘the widely held view that the Queen had a strained relationship with Margaret Thatcher is dismissed as “a lot of nonsense” by Lady Thatcher herself’. One might think, ‘Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?’ – yet there are reasons to suggest it is also accurate.
One might point out that the conservative Thatcher had great reverence for the monarchy; indeed, her low curtseys were widely mocked. In a telling gesture, the Queen paid her the highest tribute within her power by attending her ceremonial funeral in 2013, though this was not required by protocol. For those who watched that funeral, the sight of an ageing Elizabeth moving slowly down the nave of St Paul’s to make her farewell to a woman born in 1925, a year before herself, whose path in life was to cross so signally with her own, was a moving moment.
It is worth observing that neither woman expected to be in the place they found themselves: Thatcher had famously stated that she did not think there would be a woman prime minister in her lifetime and if the Abdication had not happened, or the Queen had had a brother, she would almost certainly have led an unremarkable country life with horses and dogs. Both women responded to circumstances with a formidable sense of public duty. Patriotism – not a virtue it is wise to display too publicly these days – would also have united them: a shared love for the ancient institutions of their country and its historic glories, not least the last War. Both, as young women, would have listened to Churchill’s wartime speeches and have felt uplifted by them.
The Queen and Margaret Thatcher were also shaped by their closeness to their fathers – the diffident but dutiful George VI and the upright Methodist lay preacher and grocer Alfred Roberts. Both women were lifelong, sincere Christians, although prime ministers are not required to be and not all Elizabeth’s ancestors have taken their faith with the seriousness that she has shown.
They had other foibles in common, such as thriftiness, the Queen with a one-bar electric fire and Thatcher having the carpet under her Downing Street desk patched rather than replaced. Yet both also understood the requirements of a public image, reflected in dress and presentation. They both had deeply supportive husbands; both publicly acknowledged that without them they could not have sustained the burdens of office.
As well as this, both women had to juggle the demands of public and family life as their children were growing up and later to watch the troubled personal lives of those same children under the glare of public scrutiny. Both, like all mothers, will have had their regrets. As the weekly meetings between them were, by tradition, unrecorded and unobserved we cannot know what they talked about, but one thing is certain: they had more in common than might be supposed.
Charles Moore, Thatcher’s official biographer, recounts a trip that she made to Newmarket races in 1949. In her escort’s diary she had added enthusiastically in capitals, ‘I SAW PRINCESS ELIZABETH AND SHE SAW ME!’ Moore writes: ‘That was her first sighting of the woman whose eighth prime minister she would become.’ Many commentators eight years ago criticised both the public funeral given to Margaret Thatcher and the Queen’s presence at it. Perhaps they might have reflected more carefully on the many affinities that bound these two extraordinary women together.