My series review is here. Or read my episode recaps: episode 1 (Gold Stick), episode 2 (The Balmoral Test), episode 3 (Fairytale), episode 4 (Favourites), episode 5 (Fagan), episode 6 (Terra Nullius), episode 7 (The Hereditary Principle), episode 9 (Avalanche), and episode 10 (War).
“when put in the ring with her Queen, the Iron Lady melted.”
The episode starts with a flashback to Cape Town in South Africa in 1947, and the Queen’s 21st birthday (with Claire Foy as Princess Elizabeth). She’s broadcasting in her clipped tones over the radio to the people of the Commonwealth, about her love for it and how the young men and women should not be daunted by the post-war work to be done. Together they can make the Commonwealth “more free, more prosperous, more happy and a more powerful influence for good in the world than it has been in the greatest days of our forefathers,” she says, over a montage of people from Commonwealth nations.
As she continues to speak, the scene changes to a young Margaret Roberts (later Thatcher), speaking at the Oxford Conservative Club dinner, followed by a group photograph outside. She is, of course, in true Tory blue, the image a foretaste of later photos in her political career where she sits alone surrounded by men (or, for Commonwealth snaps, joined by the Queen).
A middle aged man is typing up a long, extraordinarily flowery-sounding book, ending his weighty tome with mors tua, vita mea (your death is my life, a phrase which becomes very pointed by the end of the episode). It’s 1985 and Michael Shea, part-time novelist and full time press secretary to the Queen, is in Bloomsbury to deliver his finished book to his literary agent.
Later, back at his desk in Buckingham Palace, he’s asked by a press officer about a response to the Today newspaper enquiring about the “open secret” in Commonwealth government circles: that the Queen is frustrated by Mrs Thatcher’s opposition to sanctions in South Africa. He replies that the Queen is always impartial so it can’t be true.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Sonny Ramphal informs the Queen about the worsening situation in South Africa, including repeated police brutality, and that the Commonwealth wants “sustained economic pressure” (sanctions) used against the country – but there must be unanimity. Mrs Thatcher is holding out against the other 48 nations.
Thatcher is cooking kedgeree in the kitchen of Number 10 for her private secretary Charles Powell, foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, and her press secretary Bernard Ingham – she holds forth on the ridiculousness of the Commonwealth and declares it morally offensive, with the Queen forced to spend time with despots with terrible human rights records. Howe tells Thatcher the Queen has requested a private audience on the Royal Yacht Britannia, for a “frank conversation”.
The Queen is trying on dresses and jewellery for the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Prince Andrew, soon to be married, comes in and tells his mother he’s chosen Prince Edward to be his best man instead of Charles. Andrew is smarting at Charle’s desire for a “slimmed down future monarchy”. He says Charles is insecure, and jealous of Andrew’s relationship with the Queen, that Andrew has fought in a war, that he’s happier, in love, and more popular than Charles. Andrew even says he’d be better at being heir.
The Queen tells him she just wants them all to be happy, and that she cares about two families only: hers and the Commonwealth family of nations.
We briefly glimpse Andrew with Sarah Ferguson, then see the Queen giving her speech in Nassau to Commonwealth leaders. She speaks of her love for the organisation, and that it provides “something rare and valuable: the capacity to celebrate difference, to value compromise over conflict. And to find a way to heal divisions in the interests of peace and goodwill.”
During the conference she uses the Royal Yacht to host that meeting with Margaret Thatcher, telling the Prime Minister that she hopes the UK will join the other Commonwealth nations in sanctions against South Africa.
Mrs Thatcher points out the £3 billion in trade annually between the two countries; the Queen notes that most Black South Africans want sanctions. Mrs Thatcher fights back: Britain is shrinking as a world power, and the way forward is the economy, not “through association with unreliable tribal leaders in eccentric costumes”. But isn’\t that what she, the Queen is, the monarch replies: a tribal leader in eccentric costume. She points out that like the UK, Zambia, Ghana, Malawi are “great sovereign nations with great histories”. She wants Mrs Thatcher to sign the statement from the other 48 Commonwealth nations re sanctions.
An acceptable form of words is required, but Thatcher won’t accept “sanctions”. Several more are suggested, which she also refuses. On and on they go, the crowd around her desk getting bigger, until Michael Shea is drafted in as a writer.
The Queen wants to win.
He comes up with… signals, which the Prime Minister accepts. Sir Sonny Ramphal feels it is a triumph for Her Majesty: “when put in the ring with her Queen, the Iron Lady melted.”
Thatcher signs the statement. Geoffrey Howe congratulates her on compromise, while she tells him he lacks the killer instinct. At a press conference a journalist points out she made concessions; Thatcher says a signal can change direction and that the other nations moved over to her rather than her moving towards the 48. The Queen is furious.
The Commonwealth leaders photo is taken – the Queen, Mrs Thatcher, and 48 men.
Shea goes to see his agent – there are encouraging words but no offers for his book yet. She suggests he write a political thriller, utilising what he has seen through his job in Westminster. Shea says that if this current book doesn’t work that’s it for him; he’d never betray confidences from his working life even if under a pseudonym.
The Today newspaper is asking about relations between the Prime Minister and the Queen, claiming that relations between the two women are at breaking point. Michael Shea suggests the Queen issues a statement of support, but the Queen wants it known that the rift is real, caused by Mrs Thatcher’s lack of compassion. Shea and Martin Charteris are horrified.
Shea points out that would be a misjudgement, but if she insists they need to go with a more influential newspaper – he also demands Charteris notes his objection. Shea talks to the Sunday Times, who run the story. Shea and Bernard Ingham buy their first editions of the paper at the same time at Victoria Station; “Queen dismayed at uncaring Thatcher” runs the headline.
At breakfast, the royals read the articles and are stunned; Sir Sonny Ramphal is delighted. Prince Philip and Denis Thatcher read the article out to their respective wives; the Duke of Edinburgh seems rather pleased. Mrs Thatcher tells Denis it’s the first time she’s been impatient for her weekly audience with the Queen.
Buckingham Palace denies the allegations.
At their next meeting, Mrs Thatcher is coldly furious. While she points out the two women have had over 164 audiences over seven years, and hiccups are to be expected, she also knows the source was close to the Queen. “Let’s get down to business,” says the Queen; “This IS the business,” replies her PM. “Lets look at the bigger questions, woman to woman.”
Mrs Thatcher points out her own background, and says that people should look after themselves then – “if they choose” – take care of their neighbour. She reminds the Queen that the Good Samaritan had money to help, as well as good intentions.
The Queen says she always has to support her prime ministers, and asks Thatcher why she couldn’t have supported the Queen just this once – the Commonwealth leaders feel betrayed.
With Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson’s wedding the next day, Mrs Thatcher tells the Queen that her son Mark is getting married soon; now a businessman, he is working in the Middle East, “and South Africa”, the implication being that is one of the reasons his mother fought against sanctions so strongly.
Michael Shea is still dissembling to the press.
It’s the day of the Royal wedding, and Andrew is furious that the rift has overshadowed his big day. Charles is delighted to see the Queen “being slaughtered” for what she stops him doing, namely expressing an opinion. He then mocks Andrew’s nuptials as those of “a fringe member of the family who’ll never be king.”
The constitutional crisis grows. Martin Charteris tells the Queen they need a name to blame, to diffuse the situation. It’s decided it will be Michael Shea, who is forced to agree to fall on his sword, leaving the office with a box of his possessions. The Queen watches sadly from the window, and remembers her 1947 speech.
The Palace to this day claims that the Queen “never expressed and opinion or passed judgement on any Prime Minister”.
Michael Shea goes on to become a best-selling writer of political thrillers. Apartheid falls in 1994, and Nelson Mandela becomes the first Black president of South Africa. Mandela says “there is no doubt” that sanctions helped end apartheid.