27 September 2013

A VCtender farewell

The latest Ian Fleming pastiche, Solo by William Boyd, was published on 26 September. It’s 1969 and James Bond, just after his 45th birthday, sets off to adventures in Africa in a BOAC VC10. (BOAC, the British Overseas Airways Corporation, would become part of British Airways in 1974). Just under a week earlier, on 20 September, the RAF had conducted its final operations with VC10 tankers (above), almost 50 years after the aircraft entered commercial service with BOAC in 1964 and 51 years after the first flight in 1962. The last VC10 landing was on 25 September, the day on which copies of Solo were despatched around the world via British Airways.

Only 54 VC10 airframes were built, but the history of the type is complicated with at least 11 variants. The aircraft was originally the Vickers VC10, being manufactured by that company at Brooklands, Surrey and is also referred to as the British Aircraft Corporation VC10, Vickers having been merged into BAC. The VC10 was the fastest subsonic commercial airliner, probably had one of the noisiest footprints, and its four rear-mounted Rolls Royce Conway engines were not particularly fuel-efficient, even for its time. It had been designed to operate in and out of small, “hot and high” airfields of the sort Bond was setting off for, and which featured in the flight plans of BOAC’s predecessor, Imperial Airways. However, the VC10 was popular with passengers, offering legroom in standard class superior to current business class and the cabin (above left) was fairly quiet (the noise being left behind), qualities which BOAC made use of in the marketing slogan VCtenderness. I flew long-haul in BOAC VC10s (below) on four occasions in the 1960s and they were the best commercial flights I’ve experienced.

Static civilian VC10s can be seen in the UK in Surrey at Brooklands and in Cambridgeshire at Duxford, and military tankers will be on display in Surrey at Dunsfold and in Cornwall (SW England) at Newquay.

25 September 2013

Beware the Ides of March, Ed

Benedict Brogan has been in Brighton for the Labour Party Conference and today his always informative Morning Briefing  concentrated on Ed Miliband’s speech. As usual the Briefing ended with links to Best Comment in the Daily Telegraph and “the rest”, with the final link being to a piece by Mary Ann Sieghart.  This was not in the mainstream media but posted on the Social Market Foundation’s Market Square, Will Ed Miliband still be Labour leader next spring? Sieghart, it seems, was also in Brighton, and she began:
The sun’s been shining in Brighton, Labour is ahead in the polls, new policies are at last being produced, so this should have been a good week for Ed Miliband. Instead, I found myself being collared by a Shadow Cabinet minister, determined to explain to me how the Labour leader could be ousted as early as next spring. If Labour is behind the Tories in the polls by then – which could easily happen as the economy recovers – my informant predicts an uprising by Labour MPs against Miliband. It doesn’t matter how arcane the rules are for ousting a Labour leader; if he loses the confidence of, say, 100 MPs, he’ll have to go.
and ended:
It would be a desperate, and pretty unfair, move to get rid of Miliband before he has even faced the electorate. But don’t underestimate the fury of MPs fearing the loss of their seats. The Tories did it to Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, who also looked out of his depth. Labour has traditionally been more charitable towards unpopular leaders, but my sense is that the parliamentary party’s patience is waning. If Ed Miliband decides to take a dip this gloriously sunny afternoon, his colleagues may conclude he is not waving, but drowning.
She didn’t think much of Miliband’s speech,  scoffing “that it’s not possible to describe his supporters as Milibandites. What, after all, would a Milibandite believe?” and she went on:
It was easy to define a Thatcherite as someone who wanted to take the state out of the economy, restore the right of managers to manage, and reward the aspirational classes. A Blairite was someone who took the side of the consumers of public services, not the producers, and was happy to allow market mechanisms in, as long as they made the services better. A Milibandite seems able only to share the voters’ pain – “squeezed middle”, “falling living standards” – but not to have an ideological template that prescribes treatment as well as diagnosing the illness.
Anyone who is trying to locate Sieghart in these three groupings might want to take a look at a post here last year.

Sieghart's SMF Market Square post was described as being by a “Guest”, although she is actually Chair of the SMF Board. There is also a SMF Policy Advisory Board which includes, by my reckoning, three members of the Shadow Cabinet.

19 September 2013

Expressionists and Picasso Ceramics in Leicester

Cultural affairs in the UK, apart from Scotland, are notoriously London-centric, and, of course, the visual arts are no exception. There are arguments for this state of affairs being desirable, for instance Brian Sewell writing in an article in 2007 about the British Art Show’s return to London:
It was damned silly of the Hayward Gallery, to which the show 'belongs', to let loose its grip and allow London to be deprived of it. I know all the arguments for sharing shows of every kind with the far-flung provinces and am wholly in sympathy with them, but London provides by far the largest audience and should never have been eliminated from the circuit. It is in London, more than anywhere, that continuity matters for both the artist and the informed critical audience. (Naked Emperors p28)
In the years since Sewell’s article, London’s national supremacy has become even more firmly established with its emergence as a major international centre for contemporary art. Louisa Buck explained in the autumn 2013 Art Quarterly how this came about, and where to find it at street level. 

However, even though most major exhibitions will always be in London, the establishment of Tate St Ives in Cornwall (South West England) and, more particularly, of Tate Liverpool has done something to redress the balance in England. The efforts made by the Public Catalogue Foundation to digitise the nation’s entire collection of oil paintings and the fact that their images have been made available through BBC Your Paintings are also steps in the same direction. There is also Christopher Lloyd’s In Search of a Masterpiece: An Art Lover's Guide to Great Britain and Ireland, which provides a helpful guide for art lovers as to what is worth seeking out and looking at outside, as well as inside, the M25.

In this spirit, this post will hopefully be the first of an occasional series about some of the good things to be found across England and Wales outside London, and not just in the South West.

Anyone with an interest in the origins of Expressionism, used as a blanket term for avant-garde German art from 1905 until the Nazi ascendancy in the 1930s, will find limited opportunities to see works in Britain. The Radev Collection, recently on tour, holds Blaue strasse c1916 by Jawlensky, a member of the Blaue Reiter group. Last year, the Richard Nagy gallery in London showed a selection from the Silverman Collection including works by Otto Dix, Luwig Meidner and George Grosz. But the best permanent collection covering Der Blaue Reiter and its predecessor, Die Brücke, is that of the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester [Not on display until 2014]. The majority of the works are drawings and prints but particularly worth seeing is Franz Marc’s Rote Frau 1912 (left), “possibly the most important work by a German Expressionist to be found here [the UK]” according to Lloyd.

Lloyd does not mention that the New Walk Museum also holds the Attenborough Collection of Picasso ceramics, donated by Lord and Lady Attenborough to commemorate the members of their family who died in the Asian Tsunami in 2004. About 40 works (examples below) are on rotating display from a collection of 150 bought by the Attenboroughs from the Madoura pottery in Vallauris (near Antibes, France), starting in the mid-1950s.

Together, these ceramics and the Expressionist collection will make a visit to New Walk well worthwhile, once the latter element has returned in 2014.

9 September 2013

A different perspective on the polls

Ballots & Bullets is the blog produced by members of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. They recently posted their 28th analysis of UK political opinion polling, Too Early to Tell Outside the Westminster Bubble. In essence, the point they are making is that whatever the “Westminster Village”, as they call the commentariat, may have been saying about the fortunes of the parties, there was no significant change in the poll data in August:
The shortcomings of “Westminster Village” groupthink have been amply on display this summer , The prevailing narrative of the summer was that Labour was divided and weakly led, and that this was harming them with the voters, a judgement which had little basis in the polling evidence. The Syrian crisis has produced a new rush to judgement in the Village, with journalists of differing political persuasions declaring it a death blow for David Cameron, Ed Miliband or both. But in reality it has not changed the political weather outside Westminster much, nor is it likely to. Most voters were against the Syrian intervention, and therefore happy that it is not proceeding. The average voter packing up her barbeque and preparing her kids for the new school year knows little, and cares less, about the obtuse arguments about motions, amendments and Parliamentary authority which have so excited the Villagers. Their judgement about the two leaders’ apparently disastrous performances has been an indifferent shrug of the shoulders. In the latest figures from the Polling Observatory, we have seen virtually no change since the start of August. …
And this is the chart, “pooling together all the available polling evidence” they published to illustrate their point:

I happened to be reading this post on my iPad, so selecting the chart enlarged it nicely to full-screen. Keeping the iPad horizontal and rotating it by 90 degrees anticlockwise, gave a perspective more like this, but better:

It looked to me as though there were two axes of near-symmetry: the brown one between the Lib Dem and Labour levels of support and the grey one between the Conservative and UKIP levels.  If so, it could be interpreted as Labour’s rise in the polls since 2010 being gained largely at the Lib Dem’s expense and similarly UKIP picking up mostly Tory votes. Of course, some people who voted Lib Dem or Labour may have moved to UKIP, and some Conservative voters to the Lib Dems, but I would be amazed if there were that many.

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Ed Miliband wanted nothing to do with Syria, given the dislike among Lib Dems (erstwhile Labour voters possibly) of the UK’s previous involvement in Iraq. And the Tories have made no secret of their intention, with the encouragement of Lynton Crosby (reportedly no admirer of the commentariat) to go after UKIP.

I continue to think that a sustained economic recovery in the next couple of years is the biggest risk to Labour’s chances in 2015. But it will have to come in a form which encourages disillusioned 2010 Lib Dem voters to return to their fold – difficult, or UKIP enthusiasts to go back to the Tories – less so. Neither may be sufficient to produce the lead which the Tories require to form a majority.

It was Osborne’s inheritance tax proposal which wrecked Labour’s plan to call an election in 2007, as discussed here before (towards the end of this rather long post). I wouldn’t be surprised to see this particular carrot reappear before 2015 in view of its attractiveness to the UKIP age group. The headline to Kellner’s comment that UKIP voters are poorer than Tories derives from a smaller proportion having household income less than £40k per year. But for the age group (71% over 50, as opposed to 46% of all electors) many will be pensioners who have lower incomes but will have acquired capital, primarily in the form of housing.

8 September 2013

Cornwell’s Cornish Cover Crumbles

Whether J K Rowling or John le Carré is the better-known English writer, I wouldn’t like to say. But certainly le Carré is famous enough for many people to know that his real name is David Cornwell. This is often mentioned in profile pieces and the article about le Carré by Phillipe Sands in the FT Weekend Magazine*, 7/8 September issue, is no exception, touching on it in the first sentence. Sands is a prominent British lawyer and legal academic, specialising in international law. He explains:
I am sitting in a sunny and perfectly ordered garden in north London, engaged in tea and conversation with my neighbour, David Cornwell, the writer John le Carré. We cover our usual topics (Hampstead …
a location which recurs:
I got to know John le Carré by accident, 10 years ago in my local pub, The Wells, after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Before that he’d been a recognisable regular (white hair, warm eyes, brown suede shoes, safe and establishment look) but I had no idea who he was. 
… We’ve not looked back, lunching at The Wells every few months, topping the hours with a rhubarb crumble and a fight over the single scoop of vanilla ice-cream that we allow ourselves, fearful of our respective wives. 
… He and Jane [Mrs Cornwell] are often together in the pub, having lunch, animated, sans crumble [**]. 
… “Come over and meet Murat,” le Carré said one day. So I went to his house … a few days later le Carré and I accompanied Murat to my son’s school … 
There are plenty of reasons to enjoy the company of my neighbour …
I didn’t think that Sands’ article added very much to the previous profiles that I’d read, although his was more up-to-date, with mentions of Edward Snowden and Syria. Sands obviously admires and likes le Carré and it all seems very civilised and agreeable up there in Hampstead. It was this matter of locale which struck me as odd because I’d somehow gained the impression that le Carré lived in Cornwall. Googling ‘le+carre+cornwall’, I could see why:
Wikipedia: “Le Carré has resided in St Buryan, Cornwall, UK, for more than forty years where he owns a mile of cliff close to Land's End.” (referenced to a Guardian article in 1999) 
The author’s official website: “I live on a Cornish cliff and hate cities. Three days and nights in a city are about my maximum. I don’t see many people.” 
This is Cornwall in 2010: “But when you eventually find it, overlooking miles of sparkling deep blue sea, it is easy to see why the three old derelict stone cottages and barn that he and his wife Jane have painstakingly turned into one beautiful structure have become the refuge of one of our country's most famous spy novelists. "I love it here, particularly out of season," he says, as he gazes out across the bay. 
… At 78, he could easily retire to an exotic island … But David John Moore Cornwell, the man behind the le Carré nom de plume, prefers the peace and solitude, the low-key friendships and community, that he has found on a cliff top near Penzance. "The Cornish leave people alone, which is wonderful," he explains. "Here, I don't see many people. I write and walk and swim and drink. Jane and I have put our hearts and souls into this place. We love it here." 
The New York Times Magazine in April 2013: On a recent Saturday morning in February, two dozen or so scent hounds streamed through the streets of St. Buryan, a small village in Cornwall, England. … [Fox-hunting is] an ancient part of the rural culture, [Le Carré] said. It’s egalitarian in this area (some 300 miles west-southwest of London), not an upper-class diversion. 
… Le Carré’s house, where he has lived for more than 40 years with his second wife, Jane, sits atop a cliff near Penzance that offers wraparound views of the English Channel. There is wind-raked solitude here, which he prizes. 
… Soon after his divorce, he married Valerie Jane Eustace … Before long they were spending much of their time in Cornwall. His house and its outbuildings are stately but unpretentious, with a brewing sense of natural drama. …, le Carré has written that an early draft of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” began with this mental image: “a solitary and embittered man living alone on a Cornish cliff, staring up at a single black car as it wove down the hillside towards him.” 
… Le Carré remains obsessed with this terrain. He’s more agile than men 20 years his junior mostly because, when his mornings spent writing fiction are complete, he sets out on arduous hikes. His wife only recently made him curtail these adventures. “I now walk the interior, instead of scampering along the cliffs, because she worries about me taking a fall,” he said … 
When I arrived at the le Carré compound, after a winding 10-mile drive from Penzance along narrow roads lined by hedgerows, he first took me on a brisk tour of the grounds. ...
And so on. As a check, I googled ‘le+carre+hampstead’. First hit was a 1993 article by Zoë Heller on the Independent website:
Once, many years ago, while I was having lunch with my father in a Hampstead restaurant, he furtively pointed out a white-haired man sitting at a nearby table. 'That's John le Carré,' he told me. 'Don't gawp. He doesn't want to be noticed.' 
… on arriving at Le Carré 's home in Hampstead, you find the front door not only sans reinforcements but swinging wide open. In the hallway, you meet him, emerging from the study, all fruity-voiced, eye-contact-y welcome. Tall and handsome - rather more handsome now, at 62, than in his younger, gingery-complexioned days - he has great, fluffy eyebrows that sit on his forehead like apostrophes and he is wearing a baggy, cotton work jacket. He looks the embodiment of arty, Hampstead living. 
… In the drawing-room, full of books and Liberty prints and comfortable antiques, you are urged to choose a seat, have a cigarette, drink some of his champagne. Le Carre's second wife, Jane - also tall and handsome in a flat- heeled, unprinked, Hampstead way - is called in to meet the guest. 
… Mostly he lives in Cornwall, away from London's tawdry social whirl - 'You don't write books,' he says, 'by being relaxed and beautiful' - and when he is not working, he walks the Cornish bluffs or travels …
Scraping the Google barrel, we get: John Connolly interviewing him in 2000 “In a very lovely, very private house in the north London district of Hampstead, …” , the Rotary Club of Hampstead who include le Carré under “Famous past inhabitants” and after that, The Knowhere Guide’s Cringing Cult of Celebrity in Hampstead, which is based on contributions like “John Le Carré the author, aka Hugh [sic] Cornwell, lives off Well Walk.”   And, Google being Google, already there is the Sands article, and references to it.

My guess, for what it’s worth, is that le Carré divides most of his time between London and Cornwall in proportions unknown, and that he reckons that the impression of mostly being inaccessible at Land’s End will discourage unwanted encounters with fans. So, I'm not sure that Cornwall and the South West of England should be too ready to claim him as one of their own. Perhaps I ought to say that I’m not a fan. I liked le Carré’s early novels, particularly A Small Town in Germany, but over 30 years ago, after reading a deprecating depiction of “boring techies” (my words not his) in (probably) The Honourable Schoolboy, I lost interest. I doubt if recent events in the now highly technological world of intelligence collection will have done anything to mellow his views.

* There isn't much point in giving links to the Financial Times because its paywall is one of the most forbidding, which hasn't stopped the paper's falling in circulation by 16% in the last year.

** Or, as the French might say, sans crumble, the French for crumble being crumble. It’s one of the relatively few British dishes which is admired in France (see the comments here), though they seem to prefer less crumble, more fruit, especially apples, and are not too struck on rhubarb.

4 September 2013

The Prescience of Mr Powell

As yet the consequences of the use of sarin nerve gas as a weapon against civilians in Syria are far from clear. For the present, it looks as though the UK will not be involved in any punitive attack by the Western powers. In the days since the recall of the House of Commons and the vote by MPs on 29 August which forced the government to drop its plans to participate, there has been extensive media comment. Much of it is in the “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” vein, but not all. In an article in the Daily Mail on 31 August, A savage defeat for Cameron... and he brought it on himself, Max Hastings, avoided coming down clearly on the side of “Don’t”:
… the only proper test of a policy for Syria is not whether it will make David Cameron feel better about himself, but whether it will assuage the plight of the Syrian people. On this measure, the Government’s current ‘short, sharp shock’ proposal fails comprehensively.
Once the first cruise missile lands on Syria, we would have been in the struggle up to our necks. Cameron claimed that any strike would only be a little one, but you cannot do a little bit of military intervention. Once the United States and its allies start shooting at the Assad government, they are committed to regime change, and it is a gross deceit to pretend otherwise.
What worried Hastings was the UK’s longer-term position:
… in my view there’s no doubt the Prime Minister has made a colossal fool of himself, on a matter of the utmost gravity – that of war and peace. Almost the worst part of the fiasco is that one day we shall need to deploy our shrunken armed forces against a real threat from a real foreign enemy. And because our leaders have so often deceived us in the past, crying wolf amid their own hubristic delusions and pretensions, the British people will not believe them. That will indeed be a tragic day, and Mr Cameron has followed Blair in bringing it upon us.
But it was this passage which interested me most:
A couple of months ago, I was due to meet a British general for a routine chat when I received an embarrassed email from him, saying that all such meetings must now be approved by the Defence Secretary’s office. This had been refused. I wrote first to Philip Hammond, and then to David Cameron, asking why they were seeking to kill the sort of private dialogue with the armed forces that I have had for more than 40 years. Both the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary wrote back, defending their gagging decision. They said that there has been far too much military leaking to the media, and they are determined that this must stop. This sort of clumsy control-freakery derives in part, of course, from the fact that our leaders know that our professional soldiers are contemptuous of their antics on security policy generally, and Syria in particular.
It reminded me of something I had posted in January 2011, but which took almost the opposite point of view, quoted from Jonathan Powell’s The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World, published in 2010 (Powell was Tony Blair’s Downing Street Chief of Staff from 1997 to 2007 and his book, he said, was not a memoir but combined a present day evaluation of the applicability of Machiavelli’s maxims, lessons on leadership and power based on his experience in Number 10 and supporting anecdotes for the use of future historians):
... When Mike Jackson retired as chief of the general staff in August 2006, the MoD sent over to No 10 the CV of his proposed successor, asking for the prime minister's agreement. Tony's foreign policy and defence adviser Nigel Sheinwald came to see me and we agreed that it wasn't worth consulting Tony about such a trivial subject, and Nigel wrote back to the MoD agreeing to the appointment on the basis of Mike Jackson’s recommendation. A few months later we faced a serious problem with the new chief, Richard Dannatt, when he chose to attack the government through the pages of the Daily Mail while we were in St Andrews engaged in crucial Northern Ireland peace talks. Tony complained about him to me, and I, forgetting what had happened earlier, said that it was his fault as he had appointed him. He denied that he had and said he had never been consulted. I went back to the files and discovered that he was right and had to confess to Tony. (pages 89, 90)
Powell returns to this incident later in the book:
General Dannatt's attack on the deployment of British forces in Iraq caught us completely unawares in 2006. Tony and I were engaged in delicate Northern Ireland negotiations in St Andrews. When we were told the news of the interview he had given to the Mail, saying that the presence of British forces in Iraq made things worse and they should get out soon, we couldn't get hold of anyone. Des Browne, who had succeeded John Reid as Defence Secretary, was in a plane on his way up to Scotland. The Chief of the Defence Staff was in Australia and unreachable; the Vice Chief was giving a lecture and couldn't be disturbed. And Dannatt himself was refusing to return calls. We thought for a moment about sacking him but concluded that that would just make him into a martyr. His comments certainly didn't help our troops in Basra; Muqtada al-Sadr's JAM militia leaders celebrated, claiming that his comments proved that their efforts were working and that they should redouble their attacks on British forces. We immediately received complaints from the NATO Secretary General, the Americans, Australians and other countries with forces serving in Iraq. Although some of the responses in the military internet chat rooms were favourable, his fellow chiefs were furious with him. In the aftermath, we arranged for Tony to have a sandwich lunch with the service chiefs in Jock Stirrup's office at the MoD. Dannatt insisted on talking, and after a few minutes it was quite clear to me that he was unsuited to his job. Tony explained to those present that politicians would not support maintaining a first-division army if they were caused too much political pain by serving generals speaking out against their mission. It was always easier for politicians not to risk soldiers' lives". But I fear he was too subtle for Dannatt, who was divinely convinced of his own rightness. (pages 269, 270)
Perhaps Cameron and Hammond aren’t being quite so foolish as Hastings seems to think. Nor was the development which peeved Hastings entirely unheralded. During the Libyan operations in 2011, Cameron was quoted as saying about the military chiefs "There are moments when I wake up and read the newspapers and think: 'I tell you what, you do the fighting and I'll do the talking'." But on revisiting Powell’s book, it was the next paragraph which caught my eye:
The sort of surprise attack that Dannatt launched will make political leaders think twice if military action is proposed in future, certainly if the military engagement is likely to be sustained over a year or rnore. Our armed forces will no longer be deployed so regularly and will lose their cutting edge. We will gradually become more like Germany and other Continental countries, unable to put our armed forces in harm's way. That is a choice, but one we should make consciously and not just stumble into it. It would be another step towards losing the ability to control our destiny as a country, a far more important one than sharing our sovereignty in NATO or the EU. (page 270)
The UK seems to be in danger of stumbling in the direction Powell so presciently identified three years ago (or possibly four, when actually writing it). So far I haven’t come across any comments by him on the situation the coalition government now finds itself in.

1 September 2013

Ages at the Audience

Peter Morgan’s play The Audience has ended its first theatre run in London. Its subject:
For sixty years Elizabeth II has met each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace – a meeting like no other in British public life – it is private. Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. Not even to their spouses. The Audience breaks this contract of silence – and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen. From Churchill to Cameron, each Prime Minister has used these private conversations as a sounding board and a confessional – sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive. From young mother to grandmother, these private audiences chart the arc of the second Elizabethan Age. Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while she remains constant, waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister.
In April 2013 Helen Mirren was awarded best actress at the Laurence Olivier Awards for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in The Audience. After the 2006 film, The Queen, also scripted by Morgan, she received numerous awards for playing the same part.

I didn’t see the play, but can’t help thinking that the key word in the description above is “imagines”. The confidentiality of these meetings allows a dramatist considerable scope in providing an evening’s entertainment, but one has to wonder if the audience will go home much the wiser. As far as I know, British Prime Ministers’ memoirs all conform to the rules of omertà on the subject. For example, almost at the start of The Downing Street Years, Mrs Thatcher tells her readers:
The Audience at which one receives the Queen's authority to form a government comes to most prime ministers only once in a lifetime. The authority is unbroken when a sitting prime minister wins an .election, and so it never had to be renewed throughout the years I was in office. All audiences with the Queen take place in strict confidence - a confidentiality which is vital to the working of both government and constitution. I was to have such audiences with Her Majesty once a week, usually on a Tuesday, when she was in London and sometimes elsewhere when the royal family were at Windsor or Balmoral.  
Perhaps it is permissible to make just two points about these meetings. Anyone who imagines that they are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience. And, although the press could not resist the temptation to suggest disputes between the Palace and Downing Street, especially on Commonwealth affairs, I always found the Queen's attitude towards the work of the government absolutely correct.  
Of course, under the circumstances, stories of clashes between 'two powerful women' were just too good not to make up. In general, more nonsense was written about the so-called 'feminine factor' during my time in office than about almost anything else. I was always asked how it felt to be a woman prime minister. I would reply: 'I don't know: I've never experienced the alternative.''  
After the audience, Sir Philip Moore, the Queen's Secretary, took me to his office down what are called 'the Prime Minister's stairs'. … (pages 17,18)
18 years later, one of Thatcher’s successors had his first audience:
… I practically fell upon the Queen's hands, not so much brushing as enveloping them. I recovered sufficiently to find myself sitting opposite her. I had met her before, of course, but this was different. It was my first audience. There is much to say about the Queen. At this encounter, I noticed two things: she was quite shy, strangely so for someone of her experience and position; and at the same time, direct. I don’t mean rude or insensitive, just direct. 'You are my tenth prime minister. The first was Winston. That was before you were born.' We talked for a time, not exactly small talk but general guff about the government programme, the conversation somewhat stilted. Then Cherie was brought in to pay her respects … (Tony Blair, A Journey, page 14)
He notes at the time of his departure from office a decade later, the Queen’s being “as ever, very gracious” (page 662).

In the three volumes of Alastair Campbell’s diaries covering his years in Number 10 working for Blair, the ‘audience’ subject is indexed only in Volume 3, Power and Responsibility 1999-2001, with just the one entry of any real interest:
21 March 2001  
… I tried to pick his [Blair’s] brains on whether the Queen was a hundred per cent happy at the way Prince Charles was piling in [on the foot-and-mouth disease epidemic, see 5 March entry]. He was unbelievably discreet though, occasionally told the odd funny story about their meetings, but even with me, rarely let slip anything of substance from their discussions.
It seems to me that the only thing that most of us can be sure of about these audiences is the identities of the participants and their ages. What would that tell us? Firstly, that it takes some effort to pull the information together, and my first attempt at presenting it led to the chart below. This shows the ages of Sovereigns and Prime Ministers since the start of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837.

Some points of interest across this period are:

1. Victoria was the youngest Sovereign, just over 18 at succession.
2. Elizabeth is the oldest, currently 87.
3. The oldest PM in office was Gladstone, 84 when he left in 1894.
4. The youngest PM in office was Cameron in 2010, at 43.
5. Between 1935 and 1937, Baldwin was PM to three different Kings. Data visualisation is fashionable, so it seems worth reflecting on the insignificance rendered to the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 by this particular form of graphical presentation.
Also, 6. Until the 1960s, PMs were nearly all over 50 and most were over 60. There has, however, been a downward trend in their ages since Churchill left office in 1955. It seems unlikely that this trend will continue further, so it will either reverse, or PMs from now on will be in their 40s.

Secondly, the same data can be presented in a different fashion (left) to show the age difference between Sovereign and PM over the same period, but with time running down the page. To be of much significance in relationships between adults, their age difference probably has to be large enough for them to be conscious of belonging to different generations - the remarks Blair quotes seem to have the subtext: “I am old enough to be your mother”. In modern advanced societies (or in the higher social strata of poorer ones) generations are usually taken as being 25 to 30 years apart. So once an age difference between adults is more than 15 years, it might begin to affect the view they take of each other. The blue-grey bands on the chart are set to indicate 17.5 to 20 year differences. Some further points of interest emerge:

7. The biggest age difference, over 51 years, between Sovereign and PM was that between Elizabeth and Churchill from 1952 to 1955.
8. The Sovereign and PM closest in age were Elizabeth and Mrs Thatcher, the latter being six months older.
9. The biggest age difference between a Sovereign and a younger PM is that at present, 40 years.
Also, 10. From 1870 to 1936, the Sovereigns and PMs were close enough in age to be regarded as being of the same generation (except during the Rosebury administration of 1894/5). This applied again between 1964 and 1997 but not since.

Finally, what might the situation be in 2017? More confidently than for most predictions, it can be assumed that the Sovereign is likely to be as at present or Charles III or William V. But the PM? If the coalition’s economic policies turn out to be a success and the Conservatives win the next election, Cameron could still be PM or could have stood down. In the latter case, the bookies’ current favourite as next Tory leader is Theresa May. My view, not that I’ve bet on it, is that in those circumstances George Osborne would be well-placed to take the credit for the recovery and the leadership. However, the bookies’ favourite as next PM is Ed Miliband. For the age differences under these scenarios, see the Table below and draw the obvious conclusions about generational age differences, if you think these matter.

As for The Audience, Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph thought it was magnificent and “persuasive”, while in the Observer, Susannah Clapp thought “Morgan's very entertaining play is a skinny thing, a string of sketches dependent on high-grade mimicry”. Robert Hardman, maker of the ITV documentary Our Queen, probably provided in the Daily Mail one of the best-informed reviews and concluded:
… what the Queen genuinely thinks of her Prime Ministers will be sheer guesswork for a long time to come until future historians are one day granted access to the diaries and papers of a sovereign who has listened to them all — and never leaked a thing.
which rather assumes that there will be such access.


1. The dates of reigns, of prime ministerships and of birth come from Wikipedia.
2. On a few occasions in the Victorian period the country had to manage without a PM for a day or two – the rise of the British Empire doesn’t seem to have been interrupted. The gaps are not shown. 3. The age differences are those on 1 July each year – regrettably this restriction excludes the Russell administration of October 1885 to June 1886. Edward VIII’s brief reign is captured.
4. I hope that the inevitable errors are not significant. I am happy to correct any that are. The way Excel was used to handle dates was described in a previous post. The graphics were produced using PowerPoint and the alignments are not always exact.


According to an article by Chris Hastings in the Mail on Sunday on 15 December:
Theirs was a difficult relationship that has become the stuff of West End drama – and today The Mail on Sunday can reveal one possible source of the tension between The Queen and Margaret Thatcher. Official papers just made public show the Prime Minister repeatedly rescheduled and cancelled their weekly audiences, risking the irritation of Buckingham Palace. Even Mrs Thatcher’s own aides warned her of ‘pushing her luck’ and potentially ‘spoiling the relationship’ with the Palace over her requests to rearrange the meetings. …
All credit to the MoS for its efforts:
Mrs Thatcher’s bids to rearrange the meetings are revealed in official papers declassified following a Freedom of Information request by The Mail on Sunday, and covering the three years after Mrs Thatcher took office in 1979.
but Prime Ministers are very busy people, rather more so than constitutional monarchs, and this sort of thing may always be happening. There will almost certainly be further FOI requests for other PMs and, if so, we might learn more.