Bigmouth Strikes Again – Queen Dismayed at Uncaring Thatcher

Queen Uncaring Thatcher

 ‘Has the world changed, or have I changed ?’

In June 1986 The Smiths released their third studio album The Queen Is Dead. Peaking at #2 in the album charts, its anti-monarchist motif unwittingly, yet auspiciously, sound tracked a constitutional crisis when a British newspaper published the political views of Queen Elizabeth II.  It was the first time that the Queen’s opinion toward a government had been made public. Containing ‘…the seeds of the destruction of the monarchy,’[1] the media coverage of the impending crisis lasted less than a fortnight, the ‘seeds’ failed to germinate, and the events have been scarcely remembered within academic discourse. The sparse historiography relating to the events tends to write off the event as simply ‘…beggaring belief’ that the Queen would have viewed such opinion’.[2] This  overlooks the fact that suggestions to that effect had been brought into the public domain, and that they were suggestions ripe for constitutional criticism. Despite the fervent public denial of the content made by the palace, Michael Shea, the Queen’s press secretary was named as the palace ‘mole’. In order to establish why a constitutional crisis was averted, a contemporary understanding of the British constitutional role of the sovereign must firstly be established. I will then explore the content of the Today’s initial article and the ensuing media coverage and place it within its political and social context.  Finally I will explore the broader contemporary events surrounding the averted crisis: The proposed sanctions against South Africa, the Commonwealth games and the two royal marriages of the 1980’s, all of which shaped its outcome. The potential crisis was averted due to a carefully executed PR strategy of denial, prolonged to concur with a royal wedding, and meagrely attended Commonwealth games, with many countries having withdrawn in protest of Thatcher’s refusal to take sanctions against South Africa. This course of action by the palace diverted press attention from the question at hand; subsequently allowing coverage from the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of York and the controversial Commonwealth games to take the media spotlight, allowing the Queen to remain unscathed.


Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth Windsor (1986)

‘A Sponge and a Rusty Spanner’

 (‘The Queen Is Dead – The Smiths (1986) )

Although known as the British ‘sovereign’, the monarch’s sovereignty had been removed by the English Bill of Rights of 1689, placing Parliamentary sovereignty at the fore.[3]  The throne that Elizabeth II inherited is in essence a ceremonial one, whose political influence amounts to providing ‘Royal Accent’ to any bills passed through parliament. Although arguably neutral in her own politics (she cannot for example vote) the monarch does have three essential rights within the constitution, which are key to understanding the potential crisis of 1986. Of his or her ministers, the monarch has the “…right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn.”[4] Elizabeth II, in a rare interview in 1992, describes her relationship with her Prime Ministers: “…they unburden themselves, they tell me what’s going on or if they have any problems, and sometimes one can help. They know that one can be impartial, so to speak. It’s rather nice to think of oneself as sort of sponge. Occasionally you can be able to put ones point of view.” [5] The Queen’s sponge analogy is a useful one. The conversations between monarch and minister are without restriction, and are legitimate provided that the information received by the monarch is privately maintained, and not ‘wrung out’. It is this confidential relationship between monarch and minister that would fleetingly succumb to media scrutiny in 1986. As the head of the Commonwealth, and separately and independently monarch to sixteen of the ‘commonwealth realms’, the Queen is compelled to withdraw from public statements regarding a disparity between Commonwealth aims, and those of her Government. It is the suggested divergence from this duty, with a public disagreement between Margaret Thatcher and Elizabeth II over prescribed sanctions to end apartheid in South Africa that could have called into question the Queen’s position as monarch.


‘March Against Apartheid’ badge, June 14th 1986

I’ve got no right to take my place with the human race’

(Bigmouth Strikes Again – The Smiths (1984) )

The duel relationship the Queen had forged, as head of the Commonwealth and as monarch, became fraught when proposals made by the Commonwealth were rejected by Margaret Thatcher. She argued that sanctions proposed against South Africa, by the members of the Commonwealth, would be ‘immoral’ due to the financial implications that would be felt by black workers.[6] The Nassau Commonwealth conference of 1985 had formed the ‘Eminent persons group’ (EPG) to appease Thatcher’s opposition to sanctions[7], however when the South African government walked out of talks with the EPG in May 1986 and attacked bases used by the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC),[8] the Commonwealth again proposed economic sanctions against South Africa in an attempt to coerce the termination of apartheid.[9] Thatcher, however, was resolute in her stance against sanctions. Seldon has commented that her actions “…excited widespread hostility amongst Commonwealth leaders” and ensured that Britain was “…continually on the defensive instead of leading the offensive.”[10] The hostility felt by the Commonwealth leaders initiated a rebellion on their part in withdrawing participants from the Commonwealth games. In all, forty nine nations withdrew attendance, rendering the 1986 games the lowest attended to date.[11]  It may be understandable for the Queen to have felt divided and resentful toward this highly firm stance that Thatcher and her government were taking against the Commonwealth aims, however as established, her role as ‘advisor’, and her ability to ‘warn’ were questioned when the Today newspaper reported that a ‘rift’ between monarch and minister had emerged over the events surrounding South Africa.

Bigmouth Strikes


7” – 1986

On 7th June, 1986 the public first became aware of the possibility of a dispute between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher over the government’s insistence not to take sanctions against South Africa. The Today newspaper began the media speculation, reporting without citation of source, the ‘premier’ had been ‘told:  Agree to sanctions over South Africa Crisis”[12]  The headline “THE QUEEN WARNS THATCHER” would suggest that the Queen had kept within her constitutional rights. However, this disclosure began a media investigation into the Queen’s political stance toward not only the proposed sanctions against South Africa, but a myriad of political topics which would intend to expose a serious breach within the hierarchy of the British establishment. No comment was made from Downing Street or from Buckingham palace regarding the Today article. This may have been due to the fact that the article wasn’t substantiated with a ‘source’. However, the silence from both within the press and from both official posts was broken when on 20th July 1986, The Sunday Times published a far more explicit and detailed account, this time citing from a ‘source within the palace.’[13] Speaking in 2009, the editor of The Sunday Times Andrew Neil stated that “… we knew this would damage Mrs. Thatcher, and we knew it would damage the Queen. That was not my concern. My concern was is it true or not?”[14] He then added, “We never realised that we were actually on the brink of the biggest constitutional crisis for the Queen in her reign.”[15] Under the headline “Queen dismayed at ‘uncaring’ Thatcher”, the publication opened a vast array of subjects concerning the supposed arguments between the Queen and the Prime Minister.[16] It suggested that the Queen was “…an astute political infighter who is quite prepared to take on Downing Street when provoked.”[17] Delving further into the Queen’s broader opinions, it suggested that “… the Queen believes that the Thatcher government lacks compassion and should be more “caring” toward the less privileged in British society.” Claims were also made that the Thatcher government had torn away the “…social fabric” of the country during the Miners strike, and that Thatcher’s policies as a whole had created a “… divided society.”[18] The Sunday Times had opened a debate far larger, both in terms of content and consequence, than the more placid discussions of the Today article. The fact that they shared the same ‘division’ story, however, gave far more credibility to its origins. Two questions now arose within the media: who provided the evidence, and why the Queen thought it her duty to comment.

Don’t you ever crave to appear on the front of the Daily Mail?’

(The Queen is Dead – The Smiths (1986) )

The British press at large, following the publication in The Sunday Times now began to evaluate not only the reliability of the source which had been provided, but the position that the Monarchy had now been placed in. The Guardian published a statement made by the Queen’s press secretary on the 21st July: “Mr Michael Shea, said: ‘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’.”[19] They also added that “…Commonwealth countries would be right to boycott the Edinburgh Games if Mrs Thatcher does not change her policy.”[20] The Telegraph, however, ran the headline “God save the Queen from damaging the Crown”, and believed that the Queen was “… unaware that these are matters which the monarchy can only meddle with at the institution’s gravest peril.”[21] The Times deeply criticised the ‘unconstitutional’ actions of the palace, and was firm that the question that should be debated was not who reported the source, why the Queen believes what had been suggested, but the consequences of her actions.[22] It dismisses the need to establish the source, and states that “…Whatever party is in power, the monarch’s position as standing above politics can only be damaged by any suggestion that she is critical of the existing government, or even sympathetic to opposition parties’ policies.”[23] The media debate now in full swing, the palace kept its official comments closed. The Queen’s press secretary, Michael Shea, also refused to comment upon the subject at a press conference for the impending royal marriage. When confronted with the possibility that he himself was the ‘palace mole’, he simply stated: “I am not going to answer questions on that subject here today.”[24] It has been assumed that the press barrage could ‘…not have come at a more inopportune time for the Queen,”[25] owing to the fact that Prince Andrew was to marry Sarah Ferguson on the 23rd July. It was, however, a decisive element that would ensure that the ‘constitutional crisis’ was curtailed.


‘Dressed in your mothers bridal veil’

(The Queen is Dead – The Smiths (1986) )

The Royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on 29th July 1981 had been a press sensation. Although not quite a time of “…national rejoicing”[26] the wedding had been the most successful televised royal wedding to date,  and with an estimated 700 million viewers worldwide, it claimed the position of the highest viewed programme since broadcasting began. The Times declared that “…the English throne is now identified with exemplary family life.”[27] The Telegraph proclaimed that the royal family was now a “… symbol of hope and goodness in public life.”[28] The events were indistinct from the heavy criticism of the royal family who were lambasted in the 1970’s for pleading for additional monies during the three day working week.[29] The relationship between the British public and monarchy was fickle at best, and the advent of young blood to fold had proven on countless occasions to benefit its popularity. It had been the prospect of a youthful ‘family unit’, including of the then Princess Elizabeth, which had in 1937 restored the public faith in the monarchy following the abdication crisis. The institution within the monarchy understood the importance of the ‘young family unit’ well, and it played a pivotal role in suppressing an impending constitutional crisis in 1986. When Prince Andrew married Sarah Ferguson on 23rd July, 1986, editors made optimum use of the selling power within a royal wedding that had been so resoundingly evident at the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s wedding five years earlier. The media ‘lull’ provided an opportune moment for the Palace to issue an official denial of the claims made initially by the Today and subsequently the press at large. Stating that “…reports purporting to be the Queen’s opinion of government policies are entirely without foundation,”[30] the statement was sandwiched between the anticipated royal wedding, and the opening of the thwarted Commonwealth games. It proved to be the perfect antidote, with The Times & Daily Mail profiling Sir William Heseltine as the man “Steering the Queen out of controversy.”[31] The revelation of the ‘mole’, the Queen’s press secretary Michael Shea, on 28th July made only fleeting comments within the press. Instead they turned their attentions to the unprecedented medals won by the UK at the Commonwealth games, due to the many countries within the Commonwealth who had abstained in protest against Mrs. Thatcher’s decision not to take sanctions against South Africa.


Thatcher, played by Lesley Manville

The scarcity of scholarly acknowledgement of the averted constitutional crisis is likely to be due to the ambiguity surrounding the reliability of the ‘mole’, Michael Shea. With only a denial from the Palace, and no further primary material from within its walls, speculation persists as to the legality of Shea’s claims. It is here that historians have been inclined to draw a line; however in doing so they dismiss an opportunity to consider the why a constitutional crisis had been averted. Biographies of the Queen and Thatcher have tended to reduce the potential crisis events to a brief synopsis of key events, and conclude the ‘unlikely’ nature of the revelations.[32] Others have claimed that the resolution of the crisis was simply due to the fact that the Queen held the support of her people, who were indeed divided by Thatcher’s policies.[33] The 2009 Channel 4 docu-drama The Queen dedicated a 45 minute episode to the events of 1986 between Margaret Thatcher and the Queen.  It follows the narrative of the crisis, with a close analysis of the events paralleled with a fictionalised account of the ‘behind doors’ elements. In doing so, they make a martyr of the Queen, and present Thatcher as a patronising caricature akin to the satire produced by Janet Brown. In one scene, the Queen weeps at a BBC news report demonstrating the violent attacks on the ANC in South Africa, inter-cut with Thatcher sipping gin and raucously laughing to ‘Yes, Minister’.[34] The effect of this hybrid-style of research is that the sources and interviews used are easily made impotent by the more approachable soap opera-esque drama. Although advancing from the staunch denials made so frequently in the more placid biographies, the writer fails to explain why the Queen faced so little constitutional repercussion in light of the leak from within the palace, implying by default that its avoidance was simply serendipitous occurrence.

 Cemetery Gates

7'' 1986

7” 1986

Perhaps it was fitting that Queen decided to make her second break with constitutional protocol by attending Thatcher’s very stately funeral in 2013. 1986 had brought to the fore a crisis that could have, at other junctions in Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, ‘brought down’ the monarchy, or at the very least raised serious questions pertaining to the the impartial role in which the monarch is employed to take. The media coverage of the crisis began to question in earnest the actions of monarch and palace; however a popular ‘Indian summer’ of weddings in the royal family ensured that media attention was elsewhere diverted. Similarly the media attention on the British success at the Commonwealth games diverted attention by highlighting the extreme reaction that Thatcher’s had received by Commonwealth countries in protest against her policy. Regardless of ‘who’ said ‘what’, information infiltrated from the Palace which should have remained behind its famous gates.  It is ultimately the duty and responsibility for the monarch to remain silent on her own opinions toward her government, unless it is said to the minister in question by ‘warning’ or ‘advising’. Astute in its response, the survival of the monarchy from a constitutional crisis in 1986 should be attributed to a cautious and ‘well managed’ response by the palace. Its success in doing so should not, however be recognised as an accepted difference to the constitution. It is highly doubtful that in any other era, and without similar political circumstance, the Queen would have survived such an event. The constitution is clear, and the public relation toward the royal family is fragile, and often fickle. If well conditioned, the seeds of the destruction of the monarchy could well flourish.


Bogdanor, Vernon. The Monarchy and the Constitution. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

 Campbell, John, and David Freeman. Margaret Thatcher: Grocer’s Daughter to Iron Lady. London: Vintage, 2009.

Clark, Nancy L., and William H. Worger. South Africa: the Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2008.

Dayan, Daniel, and Elihu Katz. Media Events: the Live Broadcasting of History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1992.

Elizabeth R. Dir. Edward Mirzoeff. Perf. HM. Elizabeth II. BBC, 1992. Videocassette.

Paxman, Jeremy. On Royalty. London: Penguin, 2007.

Pimlott, Ben. The Queen: Elizabeth II and the Monarchy. London: HarperCollins, 2002.

“The Queen” The Rivals. Dir. Patrick Reams. Perf. Susan Jameson, Lesley Manville. Channel 4, 2009. 1 Dec. 2009. Web. 31 Mar. 2009. <;

Seldon, Anthony, and Daniel Collings. Britain under Thatcher. Harlow, England: Longman, 2000.

Seward, Ingrid. The Queen and Di. London: HarperCollins, 2000.

Shawcross, William. Queen and Country. London: BBC, 2002.

Worden, Nigel. The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, Apartheid, Democracy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007.

Young, Hugo. Supping with the Devils: Political Writing from Thatcher to Blair. London: Atlantic, 2003.

[1] “The Queen” The Rivals. Dir. Patrick Reams. Channel 4, 2009. 1 Dec. 2009. Web. 31 Mar. 2009. . Time: 46:20secs

[2] Shawcross, William. Queen and Country. London: BBC, 2002. p.133

[3] Bogdanor, Vernon. The Monarchy and the Constitution. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.p.69

[4] Ibid.

[5] Elizabeth R. Dir. Edward Mirzoeff. Perf. HM. Elizabeth II. BBC, 1992. Videocassette. Time: 28:03 to 29:37secs

[6] Young, Hugo. Supping with the Devils: Political Writing from Thatcher to Blair. London: Atlantic, 2003. p.6

[7] Seldon, Anthony, and Daniel Collings. Britain under Thatcher. Harlow, England: Longman, 2000 p.38

[8] Worden, Nigel. The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, Apartheid, Democracy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2007. P.149

[9] Clark, Nancy L., and William H. Worger. South Africa: the Rise and Fall of Apartheid. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2008. p.86 – 89

[10] Seldon, Anthony, and Daniel Collings. Britain under Thatcher. Harlow, England: Longman, 2000.p.74

[11] Dayan, Daniel, and Elihu Katz. Media Events: the Live Broadcasting of History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1992.p.191

[12] Today 7th June 1986, p.1

[13] Freeman & Jones: The Sunday Times. 20th July, 1986. P.1

[14] The Queen” The Rivals. Dir. Patrick Reams. Channel 4, 2009. 1 Dec. 2009. Web. 31 Mar. 2009. . Time: 36: 40 secs

[15] Ibid. Time: 47: 42 secs

[16] Freeman & Jones: The Sunday Times. 20th July, 1986. P.1

[17] Inid. p.2

[18] Ibid

[19]Carvel, John. The Guardian, 21st July, 1986. P.6

[20] Ibid

[21] The Telegraph, 21st July, 1986. P.1

[22] The Times, 21st July, 1986. P.2

[23] Ibid

[24] The Times, 22nd July 1986. P.11

[25] Shawcross, William. Queen and Country. London: BBC, 2002. p.133

[26] Ibid. p.159

[27] The Times, 29th July, 1981. p.4

[28] Telegraph, 29th July, 1981. P.7

[29] Seward, Ingrid. The Queen and Di. London: HarperCollins, 2000. p. 155

[30] As reported in The Times, 24th July, 1986

[31] Daily Mail, 25th July, 1986. p.14

[32] Shawcross, William. Queen and Country. London: BBC, 2002. p.133

[33] Pimlott, Ben. The Queen: Elizabeth II and the Monarchy. London: HarperCollins, 2002. p.291

[34] “The Queen” The Rivals. Dir. Patrick Reams. Channel 4, 2009. 1 Dec. 2009. Web. 31 Mar. 2009. . Time:17:55 to 18:48 seconds


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