Many years ago I saw on the BBC’s magazine programme Nationwide a report that stayed with me through the years. It showed a group of elderly men meeting in a rather smart room in Central London. It was a Cabinet meeting – they referred to themselves and each other as ministers and they dealt with matters of state – but it was also somehow unreal. They were in fact the Polish government in exile, who had fled to Britain in 1939 and been stuck here ever since. I was fascinated by the spectacle of these elderly men all keeping an idea and a ritual going, when it must have seemed as if there was no chance at all of their ever actually exercising any real power. That set me thinking about the whole notion of rulers and governments in exile – what a strange, surreal world they inhabit. Visitors used to say on meeting James II in exile at St Germain, near Paris, that you only had to listen to him to understand why he was there.
A Cabinet Meeting is set in 1988, when, for the first time, it looks as if the long wait might finally be over. But the end of their long life in exile is not as easy to adapt to as they have imagined.
MINISTER OF TRANSPORT: Apparently we have a yawning trade deficit. We are deeply in the red. I didn’t intend that as a joke and I still don’t.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: How do you know we have a trade deficit?
MINISTER OF TRANSPORT: We must have. I read it in The Economist.
PRESIDENT: Good. Anything else? Very well. Item one.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: I don’t suppose we’re thinking of declaring war on anyone, are we? I rather fancy a war with Sweden. I haven’t been to Stockholm in years. And it’s a nice change from fighting Russia.
PRIME MINISTER: (Warning) Edvard –
PRESIDENT: Item one. Infrastructure. Transport Minister. I was expecting a report from you on the proposed highway from Warsaw to Poznan.
MINISTER OF TRANSPORT: You were indeed, Mr President. Here it is. (He takes a file out of his briefcase and hands it to the PRESIDENT)
PRESIDENT: I haven’t got time to read this now. It will have to go on the agenda for the next meeting.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: One moment. Can I ask, what are we doing about the strikes?
PRESIDENT: That is not on the agenda.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: Well, it is really, don’t you think?
PRIME MINISTER: I was thinking of bringing it up under A.O.B.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: The strikers might bring down the government.
PRESIDENT: It is not a government!
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: The world’s press is watching. Don’t you think this is a little more important than A.O.B?
PRESIDENT: It is a military junta!
PRIME MINISTER: We can move it up the agenda, if you like.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: It’s not a question of what I like. It’s a question of reality. It’s a bit more important than – what have we? (Looks at the agenda) The Law of Inheritance. University funding. Fishing rights. Ooh, even an item on defence. Oh, come on – this is important.
PRESIDENT: So are fishing rights.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: Yes, but we can’t do anything about them. We might be able to do something about the strikes.
PRESIDENT: We can determine fishing rights.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: No, we can’t.
PRESIDENT: We are the government.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: We are a bunch of clapped-out old men sitting in London. We are not the Government of Poland. We have not been the government of Poland since nineteen thirty-nine.
PRESIDENT: We are the legitimate government. We have been for fifty years.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: Then let us govern.
PRIME MINISTER: Edvard, we’ve gone over this so many times.
PRESIDENT: He’s not Edvard! Not in this room. He is the Minister of Education.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: Am I? Am I really? Well, then, I’ll change the school curriculum, shall I? I think everyone in Poland should learn about the life cycle of the bat. And they should all have cookery classes and learn to make a soufflée like Fanny Craddock. And while we’re at it, they can all learn about the Nazi-Soviet partition. I shall sign a decree and the whole country shall do as I say. Just like that! Only they won’t. Because they have a government in Warsaw and we are a bunch of old men in London.
PRESIDENT: They have an illegal military junta in Warsaw. We are the legitimate government. We – in London. And one day we will go home.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: And how will we do that, Mr President? Since we’re not allowed to set foot in the country? But if these strikes go the way it looks as if they’re going, we might be able to. So I suggest we put the law of inheritance to one side and discuss the real strikes that are really going on at home and which might possibly bring down the real Polish government.
PRESIDENT: We are the real Polish government!
PRIME MINISTER: Edvard, leave it. You’re upsetting him.
PRESIDENT: I know your game. I know what you’re up to.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: You stupid old man, I’m not up to anything. I just want to go home!
PRESIDENT: You’re after my place! You want to overthrow me!
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: Yes, I would love to overthrow you. But I’m not plotting to. I just want to talk about the strikes.
PRESIDENT: It’s a trick.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: How is that a trick?
PRESIDENT: He’s been talking to them. I know he has.
PRIME MINISTER: He hasn’t been talking with anyone.
PRESIDENT: He’s been talking to those bastards in Warsaw. Haven’t you? Admit it! You’ve been talking to the embassy.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: Can we please stop this and talk about these strikes? Which just might be our best chance of getting home to Poland?
PRESIDENT: They’re not on the agenda.
PRIME MINSTER: We can insert them.
PRESIDENT: No. They’re not on the agenda.
MINISTER OF EDUCATION: Right. You stupid old man. (He takes the PRESIDENT’s copy of the agenda and writes “Strikes” across it in big letters. He shows it to the others.) They are now.