Former Royal Correspondent who has covered over 80 royal tours, Robert Hardman discusses Britain’s major advantage in the exercise of soft power
So much for people being on their best behaviour in front of royalty. The crush at the presidential reception for the Queen in Rio de Janeiro was so bad that the British Ambassador, Sir John Russell, resorted to extreme measures.
“Spurs and a lit cigar came in very handy and I realised that in a previous incarnation I must have been a police horse,” Sir John reported back to London. There had been similar scenes on the streets of Sao Paolo, “where I lost two buttons and a CMG.”
None the less, Sir John declared, the Queen’s 1968 state visit to Brazil had been a monumental triumph: “The students called off their riots and the right wing suspended their retaliations. All parties are united by the feeling their country has been greatly distinguished.”
With a few notable exceptions, that has usually been the case with royal diplomacy in modern times. In writing Queen of the World, my new study of the monarchy’s international role, I have interviewed six Prime Ministers (three of them British), six former Foreign Secretaries, all five surviving Commonwealth Secretaries-General and many ambassadors past and present. It was a former US Ambassador who inspired the title of the book. I have also had access to members of the Royal Family, the Royal Household and the Royal Archives.
What emerges clearly is a picture of a monarch who sees her overseas role primarily as that of an executive diplomat rather than a stately tourist.
Take the exchanges between the Palace and the Foreign Office after the 1979 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Zambia. In his telegram to London, the High Commissioner, Sir Len Allinson, reported that summit host President Kenneth Kaunda had been planning to deliver an explosive speech with some “highly unacceptable passages” aimed at Margaret Thatcher. But after being “confronted,” the Zambian leader had “backed down.” This provoked a fiery response from the Queen’s Private Secretary, Philip Moore. Writing to Roger du Boulay, Vice-Marshal of the Diplomatic Corps, Moore insisted that Allinson’s despatch should be amended. Sir Len had overlooked a key factor: “The Queen intervened personally.” Moore went on to explain what had happened: “When we arrived at Lusaka, Len Allinson reported to me that he thought that the only way in which he could get the offending passages removed from Kaunda’s speech was for the Queen to speak to him personally. This the Queen did in the motor car and later that evening.”
So, the Foreign Office rewrote the despatch that now notes that a major diplomatic incident was avoided thanks to “a personal intervention by The Queen.”
Reading the traffic between London and the missions before, during and after many visits, it is clear just how much the Palace and the FCO rely on one another, as many diplomats have testified. Ahead of the first (and only) state visit to Namibiain 1991, the High Commissioner, Francis Richards, had been facing all manner of dilemmas, not least persuading the hosts that the Queen did not like to travel through streets in a zig-zag formation at top speed. He was more than relieved when the advance team from the Palace came out on the ‘recce’ to iron out the details of every last walkabout. “They were full of good ideas,” he explained, “like putting two lines of whitewashed stones to create a pathway for the Queen. Brilliant.”
The FCO has often been surprised by the level of enthusiasm from an institution regarded as innately cautious. Following the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994, Ministers had been cautious about sending the Queen to South Africaright away, wary of anti-British violence due to Mrs Thatcher’s opposition to sanctions in the apartheid era. According to the (then) captain of Britannia, Sir Robert Woodard, she was having none of it. “The Foreign Secretary was worried and the Queen overruled him,” Sir Robert recalled. “She said: ‘Mr Mandela is getting advice from lots of people but no one’s actually giving him any help. He needs physical assistance and he needs a show.’ She was going to give him one.”
Sir Julian King, British Ambassador during the Queen’s historic state visit to Irelandin 2011, discovered a similar royal enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries as soon as the two sides started discussing the schedule. “Up until that stage, outline ideas had focussed on a short visit of around one and a half days in Dublin,” he said. The Queen had other ideas – and she didn’t think 36 hours was nearly long enough. “It became clear to me very early on that the Palace were interested in a longer and bigger visit if the Irish were open to that. Not everybody on the Irish side had been thinking on that kind of scale!” The Queen got her way and the four-day visit went on to be a milestone in relations across the Irish Sea. “I think it was the most transformative bit of diplomacy I have seen. It was amazing,” David Cameron reflected in a revealing interview.
While the UK may today be convulsed by Brexit, he believes that ‘Brentry’ – as Britain went in to the Common Market – must have been “much harder” for the Queen, given that many of her realms, notably New Zealandand Australia, were so opposed.
Many ministers and diplomats have told me how royal visits have given Britain a major advantage in the exercise of ‘soft power’, the use of persuasion rather than coercion. The man who invented the term, Harvard’s Professor Joseph Nye, certainly agrees. “Britain is in the top rank, it really is,” he explained. “Despite things like Brexit, there are other soft power assets and one of them is the Royal Family.” By way of example, he pointed to the fact that millions of Americans – including his own family – were up in the middle of the night for Prince Harry’s wedding.
Of course, royal diplomacy cannot achieve an impact without the media. As a former royal correspondent who has covered more than 80 royal tours, I am well aware what an irritant we can be, especially when months of precision planning result in a front page photo of the Queen looking bored or a disobliging piece on her host’s financial misdemeanours.
The perils of the press are a frequent lament in post-tour telegrams. “A very difficult fortnight,” harrumphed Sir Eric Norris, High Commissioner to Kenya after Princess Anne’s first tour in 1970. “The gentlemen of the Press were frequently importunate.” Even worse was a BBC film crew from Blue Peter. “Most of the filming was with Miss Valerie Singleton, whose many accomplishments do not, I think, include the art of self-effacement.”
The Palace tend to be more stoical. As the Queen always likes to remind her family: “I have to be seen to be believed.”
I have been lucky to report some great royal-diplomatic moments – like that first state visit to Russiain 1994 or the Queen stepping off Britannia in Cape Town to be greeted by Nelson Mandela a year later. There has been the odd stinker too, like the disastrous 1997 state visit to India. Yet I have only caught a fraction of the action. It is mind-boggling to think that the Queen has been doing this for seven decades.
I just wish I had been there to see the gallant Sir John Russell fighting off the VIP mob in Rio with his cigar.