Queen Bee with a very nasty sting

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The Independent Online
The Queen Mother will be 99 next month, prompting the usual slew of headlines saluting the nation's favourite grandmother. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother is, we are told, the epitome of what the Royal Family used to be until its disastrous experiments with populism: dignified, regal, in touch with the common people. Commentators make jokes about the old girl's drinking habits, and her overdraft, but without malice or any suggestion that they are more than the foibles of a lovable elderly lady.

When she dies, plans exist for a period of state mourning in which, we may be sure, the People's Prime Minister will play a prominent role. In a gossipy book about the Windsors, which has not been published in Britain, either for fear of our libel laws or the reluctance of our publishers to commit lese majeste, the biographer Kitty Kelley summed up the QM's role in the 1990s: "Only the Queen Mother, bobbing along in her feathers and veils, seemed capable of inspiring genuine affection."

The result is a curious state of affairs in which a prejudiced old woman has come to be regarded as someone whose passing should fill us with nostalgia. She is praised for the sense of duty which inspired her when her husband, the Duke of York, reluctantly inherited the throne after the abdication; more recently, we have heard about her steadying influence on the Prince of Wales. Yet it is clear that the then Duchess of York took to power and the sycophancy of courtiers like a duck to water. Like many people who have never had to earn a living, she is bossy, petulant and infantile, with an overweening sense of her own importance.

She was livid when the present Queen decided, in a modest gesture towards modern- isation, to pay a minimal amount of income tax. She is in favour of hanging and long prison sentences, but against immigration. She loathes the Germans, referring to them as Huns, in spite of having married into what was originally a German family. She thinks that Africans are incapable of governing themselves, "poor darlings", and were much better off when "we" were looking after them. In spite of all this, according to the Daily Telegraph last week, many friends of the Prince of Wales believe she "has not had nearly enough influence" in this country. When the Diana fiasco hit the Royal Family, the Queen Mother took her grandson's side. "She came to feel that Diana was a very silly girl and had a poor sense of duty, or devoir, as she often calls it", said a lady-in-waiting whose remarks were reported in the Telegraph. This is evidence of something we already know, which is that the Queen Mother stands in a long line of aristocratic woman who connive at the bad behaviour of their menfolk, while ostracising the women who are damaged by it.

So why did we ever allow ourselves to be persuaded that the Queen Mother is some sort of paragon? The answer is that she is a survivor of the days when the Royal Family were figureheads rather than celebrities. We did not know much about them, which gave us little, apart from the institution itself, to criticise. What is astonishing about the Queen Mother is that our habit of deference towards her remains entrenched, in an age when stories about her selfishness and snobbery are legion. It will be interesting to see whether, when she dies, that bad old habit finally expires with her.

THE Santiago stadium. Wentworth golf course. In some circles, they are being talked of in the same breath as human rights campaigners battle to bring a terrible injustice to the attention of an uncaring world. Last week, with a fearless disregard for their own reputations and personal safety, they staged a protest in the centre of London in support of "a political prisoner" who, they claim, has been subject to "the diplomatic methods of the Borgias". The unfortunate man is, they protest, the victim of a conspiracy by "the organised international Left" who are "bent on revenge".

What on earth are Lord Lamont and Baroness Thatcher going on about? Their old mate General Pinochet faces charges of torture, which include complicity in administering electric shocks, rape and forcing prisoners to bugger their own sons. He has been allowed to sit out his period of detention in a leafy part of Surrey, in surroundings that are far better-appointed than most council houses. It is a measure of how lacking in vindictiveness we old Lefties are that the worst he has had to contend with is prolonged exposure to someone else's regrettable taste in soft furnishings.