Whatever you think of the man and his policies, an invitation to an anglophile President of United States at this delicate point of our national story is clearly in the best interests of the country. Trump is no Ceausescu. But the visit by the Romanian despot in 1978 does provide certain lessons for how to handle a tricky visitor to the Royal Palaces.
Ceausescu’s Romania was a brutal dictatorship policed by the omnipresent Securitate. Apart from Albania’s Enver Hoxha, he had the worst human rights record in Europe. He had 20,000 political prisoners, sold Romanians of German extraction to the Federal Republic for £4,000 per person and fined mothers who did not have enough children (five was the legal minimum). The economy was a kleptocracy run incompetently by his ghastly family who, despite Romania’s bountiful
The invitation, organised by David Owen, then foreign secretary, was a piece of Cold War realpolitik designed to draw the semi-autonomous Romania further from the Soviet sphere of influence.
Like the Trump affair, the awkwardness was the Queen’s involvement. Many communist leaders had come to Britain since Stalin’s death and even had dinner with the Queen. But this was the first to come on a State Visit.
The Ceacescu’s made extraordinary demands for the visit and they got the full monty. Nicolae and Elena arrived at Gatwick Airport and were taken from there by Royal Train to Victoria Station where they were met by the Queen and driven to Buckingham Palace in a horse-drawn open carriage. You can see the cringe-making video here.
There were trade deals, honorary doctorates and a poignant exchange of gifts. The Queen gave Ceausescu a rifle with a telescopic sight and his wife a gold brooch. The Queen made him a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath, an unusual honour for another head of state, which came to be dubbed the “Order of the Bloodbath”.
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On that occasion, the students and protesters of the left did not protest. There was one lonely protester who stood outside Claridge’s as the guests arrived for dinner. When the police tried to move him on, there were words and he was arrested resulting in a fine of £65. The visit of this great monster passed with hardly a whimper from the Labour Party or any hand-wringing from the British Establishment.
In retrospect, the Ceausescu visit could be seen as an necessary piece of statecraft, the pragmatic decision to hold our noses to do whatever is necessary to protect the national interest. But the decision to offer a State Visit and the GCB can only be seen as a willful avoidance of the harsh facts of Ceausescu’s brutal regime and the Government came to regret their largesse. There was a substantial campaign to cancel the GCB led by my Father, then an MEP and peer, that dragged on for years, gained the support of Prince Charles and embarrassed those involved in the invitation.
So, the lessons are clear. The Queen is a valuable and long-standing part of Britain’s diplomatic “soft power” so, despite a natural squeamishness, state visits for difficult international partners contribute to our country’s standing in the world. But these occasions need to be handled on our own terms. No shooting rifles for murderers. No GCB’s for leaders who clearly are not gentlemen. And protect the rights of those who want to make their protests heard.