- - Tuesday, September 9, 2014

By Adam Macqueen
Little Brown (U.K.)/Trafalgar Square, $19.95, 288 pages

We owe this delightful political potpourri to the famous — or infamous, depending on your perspective — “30-year-old” British rule, which for much of the past century kept locked up even the most innocuous government documents for three full decades. Before that, it had been 50. Prime Minister Gordon Brown proposed shortening it to 15 years. This was later changed to 20, and it won’t be fully phased in until 2023, unless the government gets cold feet and extends it again. You get the idea. It wouldn’t be unfair to conclude that the British government thinks it has a lot to hide.

As Adam Macqueen notes in the introduction, “these are the things they didn’t want you to know. The inner thoughts of prime ministers from Lloyd George to Margaret Thatcher. The missives from the palace that the royals wanted kept away from prying eyes. The things the [Cabinet was] only prepared to discuss behind closed doors, on the strict understanding that no one would find out about it until long after they were safely picking up their pensions. The secrets so worrying to the powers-that-be that they declared they should be locked away for decades. And in many cases, it’s very hard to see why.” He wittily annotates the section “For Recipient’s Eyes Only.”

Of course, as the author says, some of the “documents make hair-raising reading.” He cites, for example, an eyewitness account of the atom bomb detonation at Los Alamos in July 1945 by a British Nobel laureate physicist, concluding “It was a vision from ‘The Book of Revelation.’” He also points to a top-secret briefing in 1960 at the height of the Cold War H-bomb arms race, when the United States was full of designated shelters, concluding that “the provision of facilities on the scale considered necessary for the continued survival of those who outlived the attack was not undertaken because of the cost.”

Some documents, though, are almost laughable, such as one describing the kerfuffle as to just how much hospitality Queen Elizabeth was obliged to provide for visiting Soviet leaders Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin when they visited Britain in 1956:

“‘Normal practice is for visiting PMs to be given lunch if they go to Windsor,’ [Prime Minister Anthony] Eden pointed out to the Cabinet. [Former Prime Minister Winston] Churchill had already expressed his disapproval of Her Majesty having to put up with communist table manners for three full courses: ‘WSC is against this.’ [Foreign Secretary Selwyn] Lloyd declared that ‘My instinct is against it, too.’ The Cabinet Secretary drily noted the discussion’s conclusion: ‘General view of Cabinet: Queen shd ask them to stay to tea, visit being put forward to afternoon: if Queen is not snarled up with Boy Scouts.’”

Not everything is that picayune, but much of it is undeniably trivial, if nonetheless revelatory of something deeper. As Mr. Macqueen, the British journalist who has compiled this marvelous collection asks: “Would it really have hurt the nation to know that Mrs. Thatcher was incandescent at public funds being spent on a new ironing board for Number 10? That Winston Churchill graciously offered to hold his Cabinet meetings elsewhere so Clement Attlee and his wife could take their time moving out of Downing Street? Or that the Queen disliked the movie ‘Beau Brummel’ so much that she threatened to stop going to the cinema altogether?”

Certainly not. The Iron Lady’s ironing board could not really match her celebrated handbag for iconic metonymy, but her practicality and attention to detail is telling, as is Churchill’s exquisite courtesy and graciousness to a political opponent he has just vanquished. As for Queen Elizabeth putting her foot down about the movies selected for her Royal Command Performances, it shows that even the most dutiful constitutional monarchy can encounter things “up with which she will not put” in the Churchillian cadences of her first and admittedly favorite prime minister.

Dotted throughout this book are those wonderful fly-on-the-wall moments that would otherwise be denied to ordinary folk: “Harold Macmillan and the Queen did enjoy a good gossip. ‘The House of Commons is in rather an excitable mood,’ the Prime Minister confided in Her Majesty on 17 February 1963.

“The election of a new leader of the Labour Party has been conducted with a good deal of dignity in public, but with a great deal of what is called ‘character assassination’ behind the scenes; one is too drunk, one is too dishonest, and so forth. Whether any of these men will prove adequate to the post of Your Majesty’s First Minister, I cannot tell. However, as Churchill said on a famous occasion, ‘If you feed a grub on royal jelly, you may turn it into a queen bee.’ They have already got the smell and almost the taste of royal jelly in their mouths, so let us hope the moral and intellectual growth will follow.”

Behind the deliciously pungent bitchiness of Mr. Macmillan’s tone, there is serious and useful advice for the monarch, who, a mere 18 months later, will be finding out just how effective that royal jelly had proved on her new prime minister. If you are wondering, it’s the “too dishonest” one, Harold Wilson, as I well remember from following the leadership battle back then; and he, too, got on famously with his sovereign lady. Such melange of high and low is key to this book’s irresistible quality.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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