Had Queen Elizabeth II been present at Saturday’s 65th anniversary D-Day ceremonies, she would, as the United Kingdom’s head of state, have delivered the British address. But the queen had not been invited to the ceremony. Instead, Prime Minister Gordon Brown shared the honors — and the limelight — with President Barack Obama and France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The original slight or oversight in not issuing an invitation to the queen in the first place was French. Sarkozy later argued that the Normandy invasion was primarily a U.S. and French operation — a clear distortion of the historical facts. In its own typically circuitous fashion, Buckingham Palace first let it be known that the queen was disappointed, and then denied that she was.
What was hard to understand was why the British government had not quickly intervened to defend Britain’s position and prestige before the damage became public knowledge. This is what 10 Downing Street would surely have done had Tony Blair still been prime minister, let alone if the French president had tried to pull off a stunt like that in Margaret Thatcher’s day!
Yet Brown seemed merely to shrug off any apparent snub to the queen, or any fault on his government’s part. “Should the queen . . . wish to attend, we would of course do everything to make that possible,” he was quoted as saying in a statement.
Downing Street must have known that the queen had been something of a fixture at earlier major D-Day ceremonies, including the 50th anniversary in 1994 and the 60th in 2004.
Beyond the fact that the queen is in effect a World War II vet — having, as Princess Elizabeth, served as a woman soldier — the poignancy of the Normandy ceremonies would also have been enhanced for her by the link with her father, King George VI.
In his memoirs, Alan Lascelles, the king’s private secretary, recalls that George VI crossed over to Normandy on June 16, ten days after the landings, and spent the day with British Gen. (and later Field Marshal) Bernard Montgomery, within hearing range of the fighting. He had wanted to go earlier with Winston Churchill. But loyal as Churchill was, he wasn’t about to share this decisive moment in his war-time leadership with the monarch. He urged King George to wait until at least the troops had advanced off the beaches.
Some things never change. In a compromise, apparently engineered through White House intervention, Prince Charles represented his mother at this year’s June 6 D-Day ceremonies. But it was not the same. And it was Brown who stood before the microphones and spoke for Britain — a welcome moment of relief for the beleaguered prime minister facing a humiliating meltdown of his Labour government in the face of economic woes and the parliamentary expense account scandal.