The Queen for a day

A royal visit can be the highlight that makes a university event unforgettable, but not always in the right way. Tariq Tahir reviews the details of protocol and planning needed to make them work

May 15, 2008

Address her as "ma'am" as in "spam", not as in "calm", and wait for her to initiate a handshake - but otherwise, don't even think of touching her.

Follow these basic rules, laid out in detail on Buckingham Palace embossed notepaper, and there's a good chance that a visit from the Queen will go off without a hitch and fade into pleasant obscurity, like the many hundreds of engagements the British head of state fulfils every year.

Break the rules, though, and the fate of Paul Keating awaits. In 1992, Australia's Prime Minister was given a thorough tabloid going-over, including being dubbed the Lizard of Oz, for making the mistake of gently guiding the Queen with a hand around her back during a state visit to his country.

Whatever misgivings individual academics might have about the Royal Family and the starched protocol that accompanies their visit, there is no doubt that a regal appearance can work wonders for raising a university's profile.

Peter Hughes, the head of film technology at Staffordshire University, had planned to invite one of the Dimblebys to open a new £750,000 studio when his vice-chancellor whispered that someone even more important would be doing the honours.

"She said, 'Don't do any more. I think I've got someone higher up than that - as high as you can go.' It was meant to be a secret right up until a few weeks before the Queen arrived, but it was an open secret for a while."

When the announcement was made official, the well-oiled wheels of the Buckingham Palace machine began to turn.

"We got umpteen visits from the protocol people. Initially it was the Lord High Sheriff of Staffordshire, who came a couple of times. We were trained in what we should do - for instance, she shakes your hand, you don't shake hers. You're not allowed to touch her, and I have a tendency to touch people's elbows.

"We were given special packs on Buckingham Palace notepaper. As we got nearer (to the visit), a member of her press office came to visit, and then the detectives started to get involved. We had loads and loads of rehearsals in which we had someone playing the Queen."

Hughes recalls the moment when his instincts nearly led to a dreaded breach of protocol. "On the day, she started to walk off in the wrong direction, and I went to touch her elbow to move her in the right direction. The vice-chancellor leapt on me and pulled my hand away."

The department was given a thorough makeover, including a new £10,000 carpet and a coat of paint. And, of course, the royal relief arrangements had to be sorted out.

"We had the fandango of her toilet, which had to be decorated and all tarted up. Whether they put a new seat on I'm not sure. She's never been caught short, but everywhere she goes she has to have a special toilet full of flowers, with a bodyguard outside."

The Queen herself is the epitome of good manners, to the extent of pretending not to have thought about it when Hughes quipped that she must see new carpets everywhere she goes. Her consort, however, can sometimes be rather loose with the rules of etiquette.

As in war films when a bomb-disposal expert has a choice of two wires to cut, an encounter with the Duke of Edinburgh could pass off with sighs of relief or an almighty explosion of newspaper headlines.

A trip to Salford University provided one example of the Duke's wit and wisdom. While inspecting a spacecraft, Prince Philip told a 13-year-old boy: "Well, you'll never fly in it. You're too fat to be an astronaut."

And at the opening of a research centre at the University of York, he told onlookers: "It is surprising the way things have changed since I first became chancellor of the university 50 years ago."

Those who heard were bemused because the university was celebrating only its 40th anniversary, and its chancellor was the opera singer Dame Janet Baker. Contemporary reports suggested that the Duke might have got his schedule mixed up.

To be fair to the Duke, many who have met him describe him as an affable character with a genuine interest in science and technology, and his fondness for speaking his mind is something he shares with academics, a trait with the potential for trouble.

It is no surprise, then, that the powers that be have been known to resort to the airbrush when the Royals arrive, as one academic, who asked to remain anonymous, relates.

"I was a postgraduate student, and Princess Anne came to open something in the biology department at the University of York.

"The main part of my work was apparently presented to her along with a lot of others. I had designed a toxicity testing system that is now used in a lot of the developing world.

"But I wasn't allowed to be present in case I said something inappropriate about university staff who had recently been recorded making rather derogatory comments about taking students from state school backgrounds.

"Rumours that someone answered questions on my work and may have pretended to be me cannot be verified."

For some academics, a visit by the Royal Family really isn't their cup of tea. "I'm a republican, so I took the day off and went to Edinburgh," says Robin Law, an historian at the University of Stirling who had just joined the institution when the Queen visited in 1972.

It is possible that, aside from the time a Maori rights protester bared his buttocks at Her Majesty, that visit to Stirling must be close to the top of the list of engagements the Queen would prefer to forget.

Ken Ferguson, the editor of the Scottish Socialist Party's magazine, was a student activist at Stirling at the time of the visit. He says discontent had been brewing over what was perceived as money being wasted on a PR event at a time when facilities for students were inadequate. The Queen's visit provided a focus for the students' drink-fuelled protest.

"The fatal error was that someone decided to open the bar. It didn't assist the mood," Ferguson recalls. "There was singing and shouting abuse, but she was never in any physical danger. I would have classed what happened as exuberant rather than violent. A lot of people weren't pissed, but if you mix a demonstration with an open bar ... it wasn't a very bright idea."

During the demonstration, Ferguson met a young Communist Party member called John Reid, the future Cabinet minister, who was playing his guitar and singing in the bar.

Although Reid himself was not drunk, many others found the temptation too great, and the raucous behaviour continued as Her Majesty went to visit one of the halls of residence, where political ideologies clashed.

"Some of the loyalists were playing Land of Hope and Glory on a stereo, whereupon the Left retaliated with Shostakovich's The Year 1917 symphony. I think the Left won the battle of the stereos," Ferguson says.

Needless to say, the visit attracted substantial media coverage, including a notorious photo of a student wielding a bottle of wine, which eventually made it to the cover of Private Eye. The students, 24 of whom faced expulsion as a result of the day's events, also felt the wrath of local publicans, who barred them from their premises.

As might be expected, arranging a royal visit is not a straightforward matter, even though Buckingham Palace suggests that a letter to the Queen might be all that's needed.

Those in the sector who have been through it describe a baroque process in which a member of the great and the good contacts someone else of the great and the good who does lunch with someone who has connections to a palace official.

Joan Concannon, head of external relations at the University of Dundee, was put through the wringer by the effort of organising a visit by the Queen last year to help it celebrate 40 years as a higher education institution.

Initial contact was made 18 months before the event through the Lord-Lieutenant in the city, who is also its Lord Provost, the Scottish equivalent of mayor. He in turn made overtures to the Palace.

"We didn't hear anything for ages and ages, to the point where I assumed that it really wasn't going to happen. But then their people told the city's people, who told me, 'You know that letter you sent off ... well, something's going to happen.'

"We got the final go-ahead in June. Bearing in mind that my department also runs graduation, we had to work at double speed, given that 2 July was the date she was coming."

Because it was also the beginning of the summer break, Concannon and her staff had to trawl for academics and alumni to attend the event - they sent out 1,000 invitations for the 400 places available. "I shake every time I think of it," Concannon says.

Robert Lacey, the veteran writer on royal affairs, says the fact that there are more universities means there are now more visits. "Demand has driven supply; and with more universities becoming business and public relations-conscious, they would appreciate a royal visit.

"Also, back in the Sixties and Seventies, a university would have shunned a royal visit - the monarchy was an easy target for progressive and trendy students. It shows a significant change of attitude towards the Royal Family and the monarchy. I would say that it shows universities growing up."

When it comes to the protocol of royal visits, Lacey says there was a time when campus visits were not such stiff occasions.

"I can specifically remember a visit when I went with the Queen to a number of Oxford colleges in the early Seventies, and I remember being struck about how incredibly informal it was. She just strolled around - she was mainly with dons - and I can't recall any cheering crowds or any fuss."

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