Monday, October 1, 2012

The King and his Ministers

Some interesting insights from Charles d'Ydewalle's Albert and the Belgians: Portrait of a King.
It almost seems as if, during those last years, no other mind had the power to influence his. It was often asked: "Who is influencing the King?" We should like to know whether the King of the Belgians had any favourites among his Ministers. There were a few whom he trusted, although he rarely praised them. It is said that he showed marked preference for M. Vandervelde. This is obviously untrue, since in spite of his obvious admiration for the mentality and wide knowledge of the Socialist Minister, he ignored him whenever he felt it expedient, just as he would ignore a Catholic or a Liberal. I have been shown numbers of letters signed with a firm and decided "A"; one and all are written in an even hand without erasures, and every downstroke has been traced with the same care and precision. They invariably begin: "My dear Minister," or "My dear Prime Minister," and are signed: "Your affectionate Albert." The style is classic in its perfection, the sentences are exquisitely balanced, show an extraordinary feeling for the mot juste, and convey in full the dignity of the writer. He hardly ever writes "I wish," but very often "I believe," and never "I am certain." Yet, when the day came for a Minister to receive his congé, he was given an audience...and all was over. 
Did his coldness contain an element of bitterness against Parliamentary mechanisms? I am tempted to believe so. The Belgian Constitution defines the power of the Monarch in a singular way. Each Party designates those of their members from whom he may select his Ministers. When Albert's Ministers had given up office, he took no further interest in them. He often esteemed, sometimes admired the colleagues who were temporarily imposed on him. He had great faith in a few. To one of the most distinguished of them he remarked: "You, at any rate, have always told me the truth." This, one might think, was a supreme compliment which should have raised the Minister to a pinnacle and made him the recipient of a host of small favours. It did not do so; the Minister in question was treated with the same official courtesy and tact as the rest. 
The Premier alone, the closest to his Royal master, was admitted with more intimacy into the daily round. If he were ill, he might telephone his business to the King. If the matter were urgent, he might hasten to Laeken, or, in case of need, to Ciergnon, where he would find the King in the woods, dressed as a day-labourer, planting or measuring oak-trees. Or he might find him buried in books and papers, making maps and sketches, in the interval between two excursions on his motorcycle. If the Premier stayed at Ciergnon, the Princes moved on to another floor and gave up their rooms to the distinguished visitor. It was a large, bare apartment. 
If any Minister, whether he were in office or not, suffered a bereavement, fell ill or was the victim of an accident, the King instantly showed that solicitude of which he was so chary in other circumstances. A former President of the Chamber, who had broken his arm, received a charming letter. I asked him if he were often honoured in this way. "No," he said. "We never see each other." The King treated the elderly statesmen with the special courtesy due to their years, and the younger men with a lighter touch more suited to their age. Each one might believe that he was more favoured than the rest, but not one of them could flatter himself that he had been admitted for all time into the circle of the King's intimate friends. On the other hand, if a political crisis arose, he would send for the leaders of all three parties-- even for those from whom he knew he would learn nothing. Thus no jealousy was occasioned; and the King treated them all alike, with ironic indifference or guarded admiration. One feels that his attitude to his Ministers was that of a master to his class. The types remain the same, although the individuals change; and it is incumbent upon him to devote himself entirely to this class, about which he has no illusions (pp. 232-234)

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