Reading Duff Hart-Davies ed., Sir Alan Lascelles, King's Counsellor, London: Weidenfeld & Nelson, 2006: a Review
A loyal servant of the Crown, quoted at length many years after his death
Duff Hart-Davies ed., King's Counsellor: Abdication and War: The Diaries of Sir Alan Lascelles, London: Weidenfeld & Nelson, 2006
These memoirs, apparently not intended for publication by their primary author, were written by distinguished courtier Sir Alan Lascelles, and issued only 25 years after the latter's death in 1981 at the age of 94. Thus, the circumstances of the publication of this book cannot in any sense be said to have involved some kind of 'indiscretion' on the part of the writer. (This needs to be said in an age when former royal servants have discovered the somewhat less than authentic genre of the scandal memoir hostile to one's ex-employers.)
Sir Alan Lascelles served the Royal Family in various capacities: as Private Secretary to King George VI, and later to Queen Elizabeth II; and previously as Assistant Private Secretary successively to George V, Edward VIII and George VI; and previously as Assistant Private Secretary to Edward, Prince of Wales. He also served as Private Secretary to the Governor-General of Canada, the Earl of Bessborough.
Much of what Sir Alan says in his diaries about various events and personalities comes across as a model of balanced assessment and moderation.
His account of ceremonies surrounding the funeral and burial of George V is moving.
His scepticism about Edward VIII shines through; having served him for many years as Private Secretary when the latter was Prince of Wales, and having resigned from his service on account of those doubts, it became an irony when Sir Alan later himself became Edward VIII's Private Secretary, having more or less inherited the rôle from his previous appointment as Private Secretary to George V in the last months of his life. What seems remarkable is that Sir Alan had predicted disaster if Edward ever acceded to the Throne, but also that Edward himself is supposed to have led certain people to believe that he himself would renounce the Throne before he ever were to accede. He hastens to add for the sake of fairness that Edward always maintained a personal cordiality with him.
If this is accurate, then the idea of some kind of unfair plot on the part of Prime Minister Baldwin in 1936, supposedly hide-bound by old fashioned ideas, is very wide of the mark.
Sir Alan also discusses the delicacies of dealing with the Duke of Windsor after World War Two, including a scheme whereby the Duke would be proposed as British Ambassador to Argentina (Sir Alan reckoned that the Argentinians would decline to receive him.) He seemed more enthusiastic, however, about the Duke and Duchess taking up residence in the United States, where the Duke might have opportunities to encourage educational links between the US and Great Britain (with the proviso that the Duke keep his distance from the British Embassy in Washington, DC).
Emerging from his account of dealings with George VI in wartime comes his concern for the King's personal safety, as along with Sir Winston Churchill the King evidently wanted frequently to visit the front-line, giving cause for worries to those who were party to such plans, not always carried out.
The diarist is less convincing at times in his comments about Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King during World War Two. He seems to receive without question Churchill's professed, strong resentment at the Canadian Prime Minister's desire for a formal veto over Canadian troop involvement in particular theatres of war, which arguably fails to recognize the situation of the Parliament of Canada vis-á-vis the Crown following the Statue of Westminster. (This is somewhat odd, coming from a former Private Secretary to the Governor-General of Canada.) He treats with scepticism the Canadian Prime Minister's public profession of reliance on prayer for the health of Churchill, and while this may reflect a genuine British cynicism on the part of Sir Alan, it does not take into account the undoubted extent to which a sense of Christian heritage influenced public feeling in Canada in the 1940s.
Sir Alan's account of receiving his knighthood from King George VI is amazing: it occurred in the United States, in a train, near Buffalo.
Some interesting insights arise from the fact that Sir Alan was asked at one stage after World War Two to advise about finding a British wife for the then Prince Regent of the Belgians; and the diarist relates that various obstacles, inter alia, religious and relating to mental health issues, were to be perceived.
The diarist's account of fellow courtier Group Captain Peter Townsend is rather revealing also. He makes his opinion clear that he did not think Group Captain Townsend was particularly efficient at his job, although at a human level all was undoubtedly forgiven, since the Group Captain's multiple brushes with death in wartime had demonstrated his undoubted courage. In fact, in Sir Alan's view, the Group Captain's most ham-fisted actions were to have become over familiar with a member of the Royal Family in the sight of others. The diarist relates that Sir Winston Churchill, in his second term as Prime Minister, was at first unaware of these potentially troubling matters, and, when a newspaper was said to be about to publish details, it quickly became a priority for him to advise that Sir Winston be informed forthwith, in order to avoid the doubtless grumpy spectacle of the Prime Minister learning about such a matter of state import from a lowly journalist in a far from highbrow organ!
Interestingly, Sir Alan discusses the publication of 19th century Royal secretaries' diaries and makes the valid-seeming point that eventually the issue of such writings are of historical interest, although the idea of confidential matters being aired without permission within a few years of the occurrence of events seemed to him to be most unethical and unhelpful to the institution of the Monarchy, his great respect for which is perhaps the central message of the book.
Sir Alan retired from Royal service early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
In all, his edited diary makes for fascinating reading, ringing all the more true for Sir Alan's lack of identification with any plans to publish it.
December 8, 2012
MJFenn is an independent writer based in Ontario, Canada.