WHEN William Shakespeare put the words ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ in the mouth of King Henry IV, he was reflecting a time when kings were more insecure than their ministers were.
Had Shakespeare been writing today, he would have to adapt that phrase. Ironically, it is the British monarchy that is a symbol of stability and continuity while the UK prime ministership has become a carnival carousel.
During her 67-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has seen 13 prime ministers occupy 10 Downing Street, from Sir Winston Churchill to Mrs Theresa May. She has had wars fought in her name — the Suez conflict, the Falklands War, the Gulf War, and the war in Afghanistan. She has witnessed Britain’s isolationism, typified by the headline that appeared once in an English paper which announced: ‘Continent cut off by fog’. She has seen her realm apply for membership of the European Economic Union in 1961 and be rejected by Gaullist France. She saw it reapply and be admitted in 1973.
The Queen was brought up to speak French as a second language, a tacit acknowledgement that the Continent mattered. Only her diaries will reveal her personal views on Brexit, but even her sang-froid cannot disguise her inner concern at the turmoil caused by Mrs Theresa May’s handling of Brexit.
Churchill is buried too deep to feel the pain that comes from an empire revenging itself.
As a minister in David Cameron’s cabinet, Mrs May had voted against Brexit. The lure of the prime ministership on his departure, though, was irresistible. She turned her coat inside out and became a Brexiteer. On assuming office, Mrs May famously declared ‘Brexit is Brexit’, except that even she was not sure what that meant exactly. She has spent the past three and a half years finding out, and lost her job as a result.
Political pundits might have advised her before she began her negotiations with Brussels to have had a cross-party caucus on the consequences of Brexit. Instead, she took the line that she would present the product of her negotiations with the EU to parliament as a ‘done deal’. She discovered to her dismay that hell hath no fury as a parliament scorned. Thrice she presented her final plan to the House of Commons and thrice they rejected it. She resigned not because she failed to deliver Brexit (after all, she had other national polices to implement), but because she lost the support of her own supporters.
The change in leadership within the Conservative Party is a secretive process. The 1922 Committee has the last word, and that is usually: ‘Go’. In Mrs Margaret Thatcher’s case, the pithy advice of her husband Denis — “Give it up, luv” — made up her mind. In Mrs May’s case, her decision to resign went through many amber lights of hesitation before she finally agreed to give up.
Her decision could not have come at a worse time for her personally. She had to receive President Donald Trump not as an equal partner in ‘a special relationship’ but as a lame-duck prime minister miming on borrowed time.
President Trump’s state visit was the golden invitation he had hoped for but denied him some years ago. He used it as a diplomatic bulldozer. Even before landing, Trump took a jibe at Sadiq Khan, mayor of London. He called Khan a ‘stone cold loser’. Khan retorted by comparing Trump to “a 20th-century fascist”.
Ignoring the recent Mueller report, President Trump has interfered overtly in the identification of Mrs May’s successor. He held secret meetings with contenders. Publicly, he announced that in his opinion Boris Johnson should succeed Mrs May and that Johnson should appoint Nigel Farage to revive the stalled negotiations with the EU. It is as if 27 countries in the EU did not exist. Trump’s pettifogginess cut off the Continent.
After Trump’s departure, the war of succession has begun in earnest. Boris Johnson — a self-declared forerunner — was temporarily derailed by an untenable lawsuit. Other contenders are keeping their knives close to their chests. Interestingly, a name heard more loudly is that of Sajid Javid. Born of Pakistani immigrants, Javid was a managing director of Deutsche Bank before joining the Conservative Party. Mrs May personally chose him to become her home secretary in April 2018. He has been in the cabinet 14 months and is already regarded as prime minister material.
So Britain has a choice between inter alia Boris Johnson with former Sikh in-laws and Sajid Javid, of Pakistani origin. Churchill is buried too deep in Bladon graveyard to feel the pain that comes from an empire revenging itself.
Some Britons ask whether the Queen has been on the throne too long. Others hope that she will live as long as she is needed, for hasn’t she demonstrated since 1952 that she is the “Grace that rides within the waves”?
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2019