Minor spoilers ahead.
In Episode 8 of Netflix’s newest season of The Crown, we watch the queen make a potentially disastrous misstep: She expresses an opinion. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has managed to ruffle Her Royal Highness's typically immobile feathers, in large part due to the PM’s unwillingness to support sanctions in apartheid-rattled South Africa. In addition, Thatcher’s no fan of the Commonwealth, the group of countries—most all of them former British territories—devoted to advancing democracy and human rights. Queen Elizabeth II loves the Commonwealth. So, alas, we reach an impasse.
The queen is not allowed to express political opinions under Britain’s constitution; such an act would be considered an attack on the government and an attempt to sway the public. But as “48:1” depicts, the queen allegedly broke protocol after a private clash with Thatcher. The Sunday Times reported, using information from apparent aides of the queen, that HRH was “dismayed” by Thatcher’s policies, though The Associated Press wrote that Buckingham Palace disputed the report.
Palace spokesman Michael Shea released a statement at the time that read, “As with all previous prime ministers, the queen enjoys a relationship of the closest confidentiality with Mrs. Thatcher and reports purporting to be the queen’s opinions of government policies are entirely without foundation.”
So did the supposed conflict ever actually exist? Here’s what we know about the relationship between the Iron Lady and her queen.
From the beginning, their relationship was awkward.
Queen Elizabeth had been meeting with prime ministers since she was 25, but Thatcher was the first woman to enter her private audience room. This naturally made their relationship different from those who had preceded it. As Dean Palmer wrote in his book, The Queen and Mrs Thatcher: An Inconvenient Relationship, their fundamental disagreement in the beginning was simple: “The palace thought Thatcher vulgar, and the prime minister thought royalty was irrelevant.” Thatcher apparently loved to lecture, which the queen detested, and Thatcher had little to no sense of humor, while Her Majesty has always maintained “a dry wit.”
But, most importantly, the two women came from vastly different stations. Palmer wrote, “Underneath Thatcher’s armour of self-belief and simple Grantham philosophies lurked deep insecurities, many of which were class based.” Queen Elizabeth was of the highest class in England, and she acted, dressed, and spoke as such. Thatcher was the supposedly self-made daughter of an alderman, and as The Crown depicts, she was not frequently exposed to blood sports or other posh activities. She “didn’t know how to treat the queen,” Palmer wrote, and their upbringings gave them markedly different philosophies.
“With [Thatcher’s father], life was about pulling yourself up by your boot straps and making something of yourself,” Palmer wrote. “By contrast, the queen’s father, George VI, was determined to resist change in whatever shape it might appear; for him, maintaining the status quo was the highest virtue. These paternal philosophies would stick like glue to their respective daughters. To understand both women, you must understand the fathers.”
Thatcher was generally not the warm-and-fuzzy type.
Thatcher earned her nickname the Iron Lady in large part due to her ability to stand her ground, but also because many viewed her as cold and guarded. As journalist Gail Sheehy wrote for Vanity Fair in 1989, “Margaret Thatcher is the most psychologically guarded of the world leaders I have interviewed. Not one of the fiftyfive sources for this article has spoken of being close to her. The lady is never introspective, I've been warned, no time for such things, just the facts.”
This rigidity seemed to frustrate the queen. In his book The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer’s Daughter to Prime Minister, author John Campbell wrote, “The Queen was said to dread her weekly audience with her Prime Minister because Mrs. Thatcher was so stiff and formal.”
Thatcher was also known for her borderline addiction to work. She trained herself to sleep around four hours a night, according to her autobiography, and she seemed to believe that the constant work made both her and those around her happier.
The prime minister displayed her power in a way that might have unnerved Queen Elizabeth.
Thus, there’s little surprise that the PM wielded her power with confidence. Her politics were firm, uncompromising, and—depending on whom you asked—remarkably unsympathetic toward the downtrodden. Thatcher was a brilliant politician, unafraid of conflict and always prepared. She would challenge whomever she pleased.
In her profile of Thatcher, Sheehy wrote, “[Thatcher] has usurped the role of the royals by rushing to every disaster scene with a smoothly calculated propaganda machine behind her. Indeed, more and more the prime minister is being compared to the Queen. The two women, almost identical in age, are from vastly different backgrounds, and yet the commoner has begun to affect the royal ‘we’—as in ‘VYe have become a grandmother,’ spoken straight into the news cameras upon the recent birth of her first grandchild. Columnist and broadcaster Anthony Howard says, ‘Mrs. Thatcher has become the symbol of the nation in the way the monarch is supposed to be.’”
But the prime minister also had the advantage of being able to use her power. The queen is not allowed to interfere in matters of politics, though she has “more power than she dares use,” Palmer wrote in his book. “She has been successful with most prime ministers because she has never rocked the boat or posed a threat as an alternative power broker.”
In addition, it’s likely that the queen’s personal politics differed from the leader of the Conservative Party. As reported by The Independent, “Insiders suggest the Queen Mother, who died in 2002, was much more of an admirer of the Conservative Prime Minister’s politics than the Queen, a more consensual and centrist figure by instinct.” This clash, while likely never spoken aloud, would almost certainly have impacted the relationship between the two powerful women, leading to the bombshell report in The Sunday Times.
The queen attended Thatcher’s funeral.
Despite their rocky history, the two women developed a mutual respect throughout their years-long relationship, both during and after Thatcher’s time as prime minister. As The Crown depicts, the queen felt terrible about how the PM had been ousted by her own cabinet, and she did indeed honor Thatcher with the Order of Merit, which she bestows upon only 24 living people.
Later in life, the queen attended Thatcher’s 80th birthday party, as well as her funeral in 2013. This last move was a break from royal protocol, which advises that monarchs do not typically attend the funerals of commoners, according to The Washington Post. Such a display was depicted as a sign of the queen’s deep respect for a woman she may have differed from, but nevertheless shared an important connection with.
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