US gift to Anne made Cabinet's 'look crumby'

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The Independent Online

The Cabinet's wedding present to Princess Anne, now the Princess Royal, in 1973 was put to shame when US President Richard Nixon's more expensive gift was revealed, documents show.

Cabinet ministers had contributed £10.53 each towards the Persian rug which was their wedding present to the Princess and Captain Mark Phillips. But then the American embassy in London wrote to the Cabinet saying that President Richard Nixon was giving a lavish crystal bowl and 18-carat gold candlesticks. .

Robert Armstrong, who was principal private secretary at 10 Downing Street, added a note to the embassy letter, saying: "This makes an old Persian rug look pretty crumby. But no doubt the President's resources are greater."

With just a hint of snobbery, another private secretary replied to Mr Armstrong, now Lord Armstrong of Ilminster: "I suspect the rug is a good deal nicer. Anyway, the US gift is a government present from official funds."

The £200 rug appears to have gone down well. Mr Heath received a note from the Princess thanking the Cabinet for the "really lovely" gift. "We are thrilled with it and much look forward to using it in our new house," the Princess said.

At the time of Princess Margaret's wedding in 1960, a letter from a government official says, the Cabinet had decided not to give a collective present. "In the event, it was discovered that what really bothered Lord Home [the Commonwealth Secretary] was that those members of the Cabinet invited to the wedding would have to give individual presents, whereas a collective one would be so much easier!" But he added that Princess Anne was in the direct line of succession.

On 11 June 1973, a handwritten note from the Queen to "My dear Prime Minister" thanked Mr Heath for his letter of congratulations."It seems to have given pleasure, everyone, and they all seem genuinely happy about it. And also it was a nice change from good news to bad news."

Papers also show that Mr Heath twice intervened to prevent the Queen making any mention of the economic crisis gripping Britain in her Christmas broadcast. December 1973 was another disastrous month for Mr Heath's Tory government with fuel shortages, industrial action by the coal miners and the announcement of the three-day working week. The Queen's private secretary, Sir Martin Charteris, contacted Downing Street suggesting that she should add a "few sentences" about the position, referring to the "special difficulties" facing Britain.

"I cannot let Christmas pass without speaking to you directly of these difficulties because they are of deep concern to all of us as individuals and as a nation," it read. Different people have different views, deeply and sincerely felt, about our problems and how they should be solved. [But] let us remember that what we have in common is more important than what divides us. "

At Mr Heath's weekly audience with the monarch he vetoed the idea. The Queen was not easily deterred so Sir Martin wrote to No10, suggesting an alternative form of words that the Queen could read at the startof the broadcast:

"I cannot let Christmas pass without speaking to you directly of the hardship and difficulties with which so many are faced, because they are of deep concern to all of us as individuals and as a nation. But I have felt that Christmas is so much a family occasion that you would wish me not to harp on these difficulties but to let you hear and see something which was recorded some time ago about events both in the Commonwealth family and in my own family."

Mr Heath was unmoved. His private secretary wrote back saying the Prime Minister believed it would be right for the Queen to alter her broadcast only in "altogether exceptional circumstances. The disadvantage of an introduction on the lines you suggest is that the Queen, having said she wished to speak directly of the difficulties, would then proceed to sheer smartly away from them."