(Un)diplomatic US view of British royal tours

(Un)diplomatic US view of British royal tours

They are among candid glimpses behind the scenes of royal tours recorded by US diplomats around the world and released under the US freedom of information act, and they reveal a lighter side of the tours.
In a cable headlined ‘No undies, we’re British’, the US diplomats reported on the Queen’s tour to Jamaica in 1994 where she was due to inspect various factories. An effort by the government of Jamaica to highlight its recent successes in the garment-assembly industry required a discreet change before it was deemed acceptable by the Queen’s minders.

“Evidently no one bothered to ask management at the chosen plant in Montego Bay’s free zone exactly what sort of garments they assembled. When the answer came back ‘women’s underwear’, the decision was quickly made to move the tour to a T-shirt manufacturing facility.
The Americans diligently record demonstrations, noting “university students and Rastafarians used the occasion to express their discontent”. Jamaica retains the Queen as ceremonial head of state.

Prince Andrew’s visit to Argentina in 1994 became curiously intertwined with a Rolling Stones’ tour a few weeks later.
The diplomats reported that the then Argentinian president, Carlos Menem, made a huge effort to be photographed with Mick Jagger and the band in a “somewhat incongruous meeting ... over pizza and champagne” because of his “evident desire to ingratiate himself with visiting British ‘royalty’ such as Prince Andrew and their satanic majesties”.

The US reports show however that Andrew, often lampooned as the Playboy Prince, contributed to healing relations between Argentina and Britain after the Falklands War. The prince, who fought in the war, “wound up his recent visit to Argentina with an emotion-laden and unprogrammed homage to the hundreds of Argentine sailors who perished on the General Belgrano,” the Americans reported. He had dined with Argentine naval officers who “let it be known that Andrew’s visit had special significance given his personal participation in the brief war”.

Members of the royal family, drawing on Foreign Office advice and often accompanied by ministers, go on foreign tours to fly the flag and boost diplomatic relations and trade. The Queen is said to see them as the defining moments of her year.
However, the US ambassadors were dismissive about some of the tours. The cables include a report on one “pomp-filled, four-day state visit” by the Queen to France, with then foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. The Americans observed that although the Queen and President François Mitterrand had “four meals together in three days ... there was little substantive dialogue”.

The dispatches also show the warmer side of Princess Anne. In 1987 the Americans reported that she was the first European royal to visit Communist Laos. She “made a favourable impression with the smoothness of her social skills and her obvious interest in and knowledge of Save the Children activities”. She was visiting projects as the charity’s president. On a trip to Bolivia two years later, she ‘wowed’ a ‘breathless’ press.
Meanwhile, US officials wrote that sheikhs in the United Arab Emirates were ‘enthralled’ by Charles and Diana in 1989. “The sheikhs seem to have forgiven the British for any excesses they may have suffered under imperial rule ... there is far more fondness than rancour for the British”. The royal couple’s visit was ‘hugely successful’, especially as the British were “sparing no political attention to enhance their economic interests” in the UAE.

In 1997, Charles toured Saudi Arabia, when relations with Britain had been put under strain over Saudi dissidents in London. “Spreading his message that the West can learn from Islam’s spirituality, the Prince of Wales charmed his Saudi audience, royals and plebeians alike,” reported the American diplomats.
Charles was the ‘star attraction’ at the king’s annual cultural festival, they reported, spending “hours at the camel races, listening to Arabic poetry and ballads, feasting with 1,200 dignitaries and ultimately joining the crown prince and his half-brother in the sword dance”.

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