The Queen
and I

Former UK Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Poland, Charles Crawford CMG, offers his
first-hand experiences of meeting Her Majesty The Queen during his years at the Foreign Office

I first see The Queen on Tuesday 13 November 1979. It's a cool, sunny late autumn day. Her Majesty and Indonesia’s President Suharto ride up Whitehall past the Foreign Office in an open carriage on their way to Buckingham Palace at the start of the President’s State Visit.

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

I had joined the FCO a few weeks earlier and been assigned to the Indonesia desk. A hectic job with the State Visit looming. My very first diplomatic job was to prepare guestlists for the Palace Banquet, the Number 10 Lunch and the Guildhall Banquet. Several hundred names in all, at a time with no Internet. We’d borrowed the bulky files from the State Visit in June by Kenya’s President. They contained a stiffly worded letter from the Palace to the FCO at a senior level noting that one guest at the Palace Banquet had mentioned that his invitation card had contained a mistake. Might the FCO please get a grip?

Somehow I finalised those guestlists and moved on to write the various briefing documents. They arrived from the then new-fangled Document Reproduction Centre in hundreds of uncollated pages tottering high on a squeaky trolley. We pushed back the desks and spread the piles of papers on the floor to start getting each set of briefs neat and in the right order. A small set of personal briefs for the Royal Family themselves had to be held together by blue ribbon.

The day of the start of the state visit arrives. Those of us who have toiled in the procedural salt-mines walk out to watch the procession. I feel a surge of pride as The Queen and President Suharto roll past.

After that first short London role I move to Yugoslavia as Press Attaché. I demonstrate Industry, Fidelity and Knowledge in no small quantities. In 1983 The Queen signs my formal appointment as an Officer of her Diplomatic Service:

Those of us who have toiled in the procedural salt-mines walk out to watch the procession. I feel a surge of pride as The Queen and President Suharto roll past.

On to Moscow in 1994. Soviet Communism and the USSR itself had collapsed in 1991. Boris Yeltsin had been elected Russia’s President. This opened the way to a first State Visit to Russia by a British monarch who, of course, would not visit the Soviet Union run by the communist regime.

But was it safe or wise even now for The Queen to come to Moscow, when just a year ago a ‘Red-Brown’ rabble of communists and fascists had stormed the Russian parliament and tried to topple President Yeltsin? Yes. It was all the more important to have a State Visit that symbolised at the highest level a normalising of our bilateral relations following the Cold War.

By then I am a Counsellor in the Embassy, presiding over the small team of younger diplomats grappling with the myriad details. But something is missed! The Queen decides to bring to Moscow a magnificent Rolls Royce. It is shipped on a lorry and driven across Europe, arriving on the eve of the visit. Horror. No-one has made a plan for getting this huge heavy car off the lorry in Moscow. A gruelling tour of Moscow’s grimy railway sidings deep into the night. A suitably strong ramp is found.

It also turns out that British and Russian views differ on the idea of The Queen visiting Red Square for a walkabout to greet the massed Russian public. The Queen arrives and is welcomed by President Yeltsin. They walk into Red Square. It is deserted. Soviet security instincts die hard.

The public highlight of the visit is instead a ballet performance at the Bolshoi Theatre. Before the performance starts all our eyes are on the main box. The Queen and President Yeltsin appear. The Queen wears a dazzling blue-green jacket and sparkling tiara. Thunderous applause. A warm wonderful moment of high political symbolism.

President Yeltsin hosts The Queen for a Kremlin Banquet: the first black-tie event there since the Russian Revolution? Word has that the Russian guests have been scurrying round Moscow theatre costume warehouses to find suitable capitalist dinner jackets for the occasion. John Sawers (later head of MI6) is there supporting Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd. We’d served together as First Secretaries in South Africa. I sagely opine that if in Pretoria in 1988 I’d told him that a mere 300 weeks later both apartheid and the Soviet Union would have collapsed and that we’d be sitting in the Kremlin with The Queen listening to a Russian army brass band play Engelbert Humperdinck's greatest hits, he might not have believed me.

As part of the visit The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh come to the Embassy. For the first time I meet them. I watch how they instantly size up the occasion and then split up to work their way graciously round the room and talk to everyone.

Yes. It was all the more important to have a State Visit that symbolised at the highest level a normalising of our bilateral relations following the Cold War.

I rise to the giddy heights of Ambassador in successively Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. There is a tradition that each UK Ambassador or High Commissioner plus spouse / partner meets The Queen once during that posting. Mrs C and I duly visit Buckingham Palace three times. By this point in her reign, she is greeting these diplomatic couples in small groups. We’re ushered into a smaller chamber with some elegant courtiers. The Queen arrives and spends a few minutes with each couple in turn. She’s been on the throne for over 40 years: she has plenty of astute things to ask and say about our respective postings.

As one of these gatherings is concluding, The Queen blandly sums up, noting that we are all off to most interesting places. I reply that my colleague who is heading to Georgia will have much the best of it:

“I visited Georgia to help set up our first Embassy there. We had a dinner of spicy stew in Georgia’s best restaurant. A huge rat ran down the side of the wall past our table.”

The Queen looks at me as if I’m insane. Then she bursts into much Royal Laughter.

My last and best occasion with The Queen comes in May 2004 when as HM’s Ambassador to Warsaw I accompany Poland’s President Kwaśniewski and Madam Kwaśniewska on their State Visit to London straight after Poland joined the European Union. My diplomatic career had started with me standing on that Whitehall pavement watching a State Visit procession. It culminated with my riding in one of the splendid State Visit carriages accompanying President Kwaśniewski to Buckingham Palace.

I join The Queen and President at a round table for the welcome lunch. They talk cheerily about the possibility that London might end up hosting the Summer Olympic Games in 2012.

The State Banquet is magnificent. Huge gold plates brought from the Palace basement line the walls and gleam in the candlelight. Everything is served with beautiful precision. The Queen’s speech touches all the right notes:

“Poland and the United Kingdom are old friends in this new Europe. Where better than to celebrate here in London tonight?”

I keep a copy of the menu as a souvenir:

Afterwards I ask a Palace official why our State Banquets have a menu in, of all languages, French. I’m told that The Queen has been thinking carefully about this very question for a few decades now.

The Queen’s reign ends. King Charles III ascends the throne. Our state ceremonies are unfolding in that uniquely British royal style: solemn, graceful, superbly organised yet somehow also gentle and human.
Is any hereditary monarchy fair? Democratic? Modern? No. But those questions assume the wrong starting-point for thinking about core national values.
Think about the Stone of Scone that has been part of the coronation ceremony for Scottish and British monarchs for well over 1,000 years. Ponder what that profound dignified continuity tells us about ourselves, and where we’ve come from. And what politics in so many other divided countries might be like if they had some of that unifying tradition.
Ponder too the moral significance of the fact that each week the Prime Minister of our country has a private audience with the Monarch: a moment each week for our most senior political leader to reflect on where his or her policies fit in with that continuity and tradition. As the late philosopher Roger Scruton put it so well, “The constitutional monarchy is the light above politics.”