Almost seven years ago, I stood by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to report on the military parade that marked the 50th anniversary of VE Day. Among my most vivid memories, aside from the flowing tears of so many in the crowd, is a single-frame image of the British contribution to that parade: a solitary Guardsman, pillar-box red tunic, glistening bearskin, standing ramrod-straight to attention in the back of a jeep. The parade fulfilled all the requirements of spectacle and precision. But that guardsman took the word ramrod into another league.
We can expect just such solemn precision, to the umpteenth power, when the Queen Mother's coffin is borne in slow procession today from the Queen's Chapel at St James's Palace to Westminster Hall. These set-piece occasions are something that the British do disgracefully well. The sedate pace, the solemnity, the discipline: all come together with a conviction and solidity that defeats many newer or more turbulent nations.
You could feel almost from the moment the official notice of the Queen Mother's death was posted on the gate of Buckingham Palace last Saturday evening that the Palace was determined to put on a glorious show in the best national tradition. It had to be a show that would be grander, more solemn, more royal than the funeral of Princess Diana. And however many or few people turn up to watch, that is exactly what it will be.
Not 24 hours afterwards, quite a different spectacle will be mounted, 4,000 miles away, but tailored no less to the television cameras. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, will be at President George Bush's Texas ranch taking part in the latest much-heralded US-British summit. There will be a barbecue in the grounds, perhaps a spot of bass fishing in Mr Bush's custom-dug pond, a ride in the President's 4x4 to view the estate, and maybe some Christian country music to accompany the charbroiled steak and ribs.
Mr Bush – sorry, George – will be in his blue jeans, with perhaps a chequered shirt and his favourite $300 cowboy boots. Mr Blair – by now transformed into Tony – will doubtless select similar "ranchwear". If he does not yet own a decent pair of cowboy boots, the Bushes will surely present him with some. Such is the fashion at international summits.
The host's obligation is to provide informal comfort with a national flavour. The guest's duty is to fit in. The degree of informality has come to reflect the degree of intimacy. So a weekend at the Bush ranch rates above an overnight stay at Camp David (Mr Blair's summit treat last year), which rates above a stay at Blair House (the official White House guest house) or, perish the thought, at the British embassy. You can only imagine how cool US-British relations would have to be to warrant such treatment.
There are other reasons why the President's private ranch might be preferable either to Camp David or central Washington, and why Chequers may be preferable to Downing Street as a venue for meetings between national leaders,and most of them have to do with security. You can run a very tight security cordon around a country estate.
In the past 10 years or so, casual "chic" has become the order of international summitry. When the Group of Seven leaders of industrialised countries held their summit in Denver, they were kitted out with leather cowboy jackets before lining up for their summit photo. Since then, things have only got worse.
When she was US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright would perform a song-and-dance routine at the final gathering of foreign ministerial meetings. Meet anywhere in South-east Asia or the Pacific, and cabinet ministers and above are expected to wear lookalike batik shirts. At the Asia-Pacific economic summit in Shanghai last year, some of the most powerful people in the world donned embroidered Mao jackets. And thus it was that "Tony" turned up last month in that execrable Nicole Farhi sweatshirt during the Commonwealth Heads of State and Government meeting in Australia.
Quite apart from the sartorial complications of finding a unisex garment that can be cut to fit anyone from a tiny Asian to a giant American, the rank idiocy of this trend should have been apparent from the start. The awkwardness of the participants at their summit photocalls says it all. There are times, and meetings of national leaders are among them, when formality is appropriate. Not only does it put everyone at their ease – even such a showman as Boris Yeltsin used to look uncomfortable in his casuals – but it confers a certain dignity and inspires confidence. Do we really want our leaders looking like the kid next door when they meet to negotiate our future?
We all have an inbuilt barometer of what we feel is appropriate to the time and the place. This is why I, for one, will be reassured by the pomp and precision that will surround the Queen Mother's penultimate journey today. It is also why, I suspect, so many television viewers took exception to Peter Sissons's tie.Reuse content