A Tale of Three Elizabeths
by Michael Patrick O’Leary
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Sunday Island on September 18 2022
My mother had the same name as the UK’s latest and current (as I write) prime minister. My mother was Elizabeth Jane King and when she married Jeremiah O’Leary, the Irish labourer who helped to build her parents’ house, number 9, Stanway Road, Coney Hill, Gloucester, she became Elizabeth O’Leary. When Mary Elizabeth Truss married Liverpool accountant Hugh O’Leary she became Elizabeth O’Leary, just like my mother
During the Second World War my father served in the Royal Pioneer Corps Corps and on June 6, 1944, D-Day, he was on the Normandy beaches burying the dead.
My mother worked at the factory of GAC. This was the Gloster Aircraft Company (spelt that way because it was easier for customers outside the UK) – since 1935 part of Hawker Siddeley Aircraft, Ltd. GAC Gloster received a contract in early 1940 – to design and build Britain’s first jet aircraft. It is interesting to note that Frank Whittle, who invented the jet engine, proposed to Stafford Cripps, Minister of Aircraft Production, that all jet development be nationalised. He pointed out that the company had been funded by private investors who helped develop the engine successfully, only to see production contracts go to other companies. Nationalisation was the only way to repay those debts and ensure a fair deal for everyone, and he was willing to surrender his shares in Power Jets to make this happen. Two airframes were built secretly. Because of the risk of bombing, one of the aircraft was built offsite from Brockworth at Regent Motors Cheltenham. The jet design became the Gloster Meteor, the only jet to be used in combat by the Allied Forces during the Second World War. We used to have a model of the Meteor, made by one of my mother’s workmates, as a doorstop in my childhood home.
Princess Elizabeth and her family earned great praise for staying in London during the Blitz. My mother’s youngest sibling, my Aunty Evelyn, told me that she ran home from school in Coney Hill during an air raid, with German bombs falling all around her.
Although on a map Gloucester looks to be well inland, it is, because of the Sharpness Canal, a port and the docks, with their mariners’ chapel, are today a tourist attraction. The aircraft factories would have attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe.
Another of my mother’s sisters, my Aunty Joyce, apparently did sterling work for Anglo-American good will during the war and afterwards worked alongside my Aunty Joan, making England’s Glory matches at the Moreland’s Match Factory, on Bristol Road, Gloucester, near the Berkeley Canal. It was outside this factory that Elizabeth II waved and smiled at me when she paid a visit in 1954, the year that wartime rationing ended. I remember that her skin looked very smooth and soft.
The Queen on the Day She Smiled at Me
I was well aware of the Royal Family while living with the King family at number 9, Stanway Road. Over my bed was a picture of George VI with a quotation from his Christmas speech to the Empire in 1939.
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown”.
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way”.
This was from a poem by Minnie Louise Haskins written in 1908 and privately published in 1912. In a book published for Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday it is claimed that it was the young Princess Elizabeth herself, aged 13, who handed the poem to her father.
I remember the death of George VI. I compiled a scrapbook in which I, rather messily, glued pictures of his funeral from the newspapers. I remember more vividly the coronation of Elizabeth II.
Like many households in Britain, the King family of Coney Hill acquired a television specifically to watch the coronation. The set was a very different kind of gadget from the huge smart monsters that grace every living room today, spying on their owners. This was not home cinema. The screen was small and encased in a wooden box. When not in use there were doors to shut to protect the screen and at night a cloth was draped over the cabinet in the same way that the budgie’s cage was covered.
I also watched the proceedings in glorious Technicolor at the cinema. Despite June, it was a rainy day for the event, but the gloom was lightened by the presence of the monumental (she was six-foot three in her prime) Queen Salote of Tonga. She refused a hood for her carriage and rode through the pouring rain in an open carriage with Sultan Ibrahim IV of Kelantan, endearing herself to the spectators she waved at. Among the spectators was Noël Coward who was attending a party with a good view of the procession. A guest asked, “who is that little man with Queen Salote?” Coward replied, “he is her lunch.” The minuscule Sultan may have been but an hors d’oeuvre but he had six wives and 27 children.
Fragmentation of the Nation
The NHS was born two years after me. My mother worked for the institution for many years and got me a job as a hospital porter at Gloucester Royal Infirmary in 1969. From 1988 to 1993, I worked as an NHS management consultant and saw at first hand the “reforms” brought in by that nice Kenneth Clark who has the same taste in jazz as me. The changes laid the groundwork for the eventual privatisation of a much-loved and admired institution. Privatisation of nationalised industries was an essential part of the Conservative Thatcherite creed but was taken up with enthusiasm by Labour leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Two of their health secretaries have moved from far left philosophies to lucrative positions in the private health care industry. Alan Milburn used to run a radical left bookshop in Newcastle called Days of Hope which was rechristened by local wags as Haze of Dope. Milburn became an adviser to Bridgepoint Capital, a venture capital firm backing private health companies in Britain and worked 18 days a year advising Cinven, a private equity, which owns 37 private hospitals. Before becoming Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt had been head of National Council for Civil Liberties when they were listening sympathetically to child abusers In January 2008 classified by MI5 as an alleged communist sympathiser. In January 2008, she was appointed ‘special consultant’ to the world’s largest chemists, Boots. Hewitt also became a ‘special adviser’ to Cinven.
Gas and Rail and Water
My father worked for a nationalised industry. It was the South Western Gas Board then. The British Gas Corporation was privatised as a result of the Gas Act 1986, instigated by the government of Margaret Thatcher. This was criticised at the time for replacing one monopoly with another. Today, a consumer might feel nostalgic about the days of benign state monopoly. Today, Centrica owns British Gas. CEO Chris O’Shea gets an annual salary of £775,000 salary but has nobly forgone his £1.1 million bonus. British Gas Energy saw a 44 percent jump in profits to £118 million last year. Its parent company posted a £948 million group profit which goes to shadowy entities like asset management firms Schroders and Abrdn and banks such as Bank of New York Mellon Corporation (BNY Mellon) with no public accountability. Consumers look forward to a grim winter because they cannot afford to pay their energy bills and eat as well. The new Chancellor proposes to remove the cap on bankers’ bonuses.
British Rail was not loved but privatisation was not the answer to its problems. When John Major was prime minister all the obvious privatisations had been done but he wanted one to be remembered for. He proceeded to do to British Rail what he had done to Edwina Curry. I am moderating my language here for a family audience. Who thought it was a good idea to split a national network up into multiple franchises each with their own timetables and pricing and ticketing systems? All the companies are foreign-owned. Instead of taking back control the UK has ransomed its fortune to foreign companies, some of them nationalised state organisations.
Water privatisation always seemed an unacceptable step. Why not enable companies to profit from the air that we breathe? People are being exhorted to save water but the privatised water companies are wasting untold gallons through leaks while paying out dividends to their foreign shareholders. The amount of raw sewage that water companies are pumping into the seas and rivers has increased by no less than 2,553 per cent over the past five years.
Liz Truss continues to pursue the fantasy that further outsourcing and deregulation will solve the horrendous problems that previous outsourcing and deregulation wrought. Providing services through outsourcing ensures a fragmentation which means no one can be blamed for anything.
Here is a little personal vignette which nicely illustrates what a Ponzi scam privatisation and outsourcing is. Recently, we decided to celebrate our silver wedding anniversary by renting an apartment in a Regency house in Bath Spa. We travelled from Paddington by rail. I had the foresight to reserve seats in advance but had not reckoned with GWR (one of the franchises) cutting the train from nine coaches to five without any prior announcement and cancelling all seat reservations. It was bad enough standing in a cramped corridor with unmasked strangers breathing viruses in one’s face, one also had to endure repeated whingeing apologies from the “train manager” who assured us that we could seek recompense. GWR’s response was that they had no responsibility because I had bought my ticket online from Trainline (a Branson company). It was not Trainline who had cut the train to five carriages. Of course, Trainline refuses to compensate me and there is no easy way to get in touch with them. More about customer service next week.
The UK now has a new head of state and a new prime minister, neither of them elected by the general public. Queen Elizabeth II died soon after meeting her new prime minister, Liz Truss. What kind of country is King Charles III inheriting? How will Liz Truss manage what is left of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth that Elizabeth II held so dear? So far, it looks as though she will carry on supporting the ghastly bunch of spivs that have got us into this mess.
In broken Britain, bad deeds go unpunished. The police are under great stress but have time to lecture people about their use of pronouns. Dissidents holding up blank sheets of paper are chastised and others shouting their republicanism are wrestled to the ground. Words are punished but burglaries are not. NHS staff are praised fulsomely but badly treated. Operations are cancelled while the nation mourns and MPs go off on yet another holiday. NHS staff suffer real term pay cuts and all manner of people, from train drivers to barristers (now transformed from QC to KC), are striking because they cannot cope with inflation.
While so many people suffer from the cost of living crisis, the new Chancellor is set to lift the curbs on City bonuses, because bankers, allegedly, need more encouragement to rob the rest of us. As the EU plans windfall taxes on energy companies who are making more profit than they know what to do with, the unelected government of the UK plans to cut more taxes to benefit the already rich and steadfastly refuses to raise additional revenues from the windfall profits of the hydrocarbon extractors. Senior executives at several power generation groups now concede that a windfall tax would be the least worst option for this winter, since it would only target actual profits and could be designed to protect investment.
I am swept up in the mourning and feel sadness and respect for the departed Queen, but I am cynical enough to ask some questions. Like Charles, I followed my mother’s occupation and worked for the state – I was a servant of the Queen, On Her Majesty’s Service. My mother was a cleaner in the NHS; Charles’s mother was not. Charles and I are near contemporaries and during my childhood I was used to seeing pictures of him all the time. When I was at Manchester University, there was, in my Hall of Residence at Owens Park, a fellow student who looked exactly like Prince Charles. We all felt sorry for him. I was, like Charles, born, and grew up in, state-subsidised housing. I was born in a council house in Coney Hill, Gloucester, not far from a Victorian Gothic lunatic asylum. We later moved to another council house at Longlevens, not far from the greyhound track and the football ground.
Charles enjoys state subsidised housing of a different kind. He was born in Buckingham Palace and now lives at Highgrove, in my native Gloucestershire, and has accommodation in London at Clarence House. He has another gaff in Scotland at Birkhall. He has a few other places to doss down – Balmoral, Sandringham, Windsor Castle, Holyrood House, Craigowen Lodge, Delnadamph Lodge, Llwynywermod, Tamarisk, Hillsborough Castle.
Human delusion is a serious problem in many contexts. Seeing broken Britain as a Ruritanian fairyland where the rulers dress up in fanciful military costumes is not helpful. People who say that the monarchy contributes to the unique and positive character of British democracy, rarely give concrete practical examples of how the Queen made a difference in real life. Are there examples of the Queen exerting a positive symbolic function in the way Juan Carlos did with the Spanish fascists?
Did the Queen try to stop the invasion of Iraq, which most of her subjects opposed? All the royal family have a fetish for dressing up in military uniforms. I wonder if the royal family expressed their solidarity with the British armed forces by trying to persuade Her Majesty’s Government to give a better deal in terms of equipment, homes and pensions or to help the soldiers who became homeless and mentally shattered and suicidal?