Queen Elizabeth II's 70 years of service
15 min read
In her 70 years on the throne, the Queen reigned with compassion, humour and kindness – never more than in her dealings with Parliament and the politicians who work within it. Andrew Gimson revisits the glorious reign of Elizabeth II.
There is more to be said about the Queen. Some of us had supposed that after a few days of being drawn on so heavily, the wells of eulogy, fed by springs of sorrow and reminiscence, would start to run dry. We were wrong. This loss is so deep it has drawn forth reserves of feeling that many of us have seldom shown, and were perhaps not aware we possessed.
The tributes to Her late Majesty the Queen in the Commons on Friday 9 September offered some clues about why this should be so. Here is Harriet Harman on the Queen:
“She avoided controversy not by staying in the background – far from it; she performed her role to the utmost – but by respecting the boundaries. She carried out her duties and gave us her full commitment for us to carry out ours. When many denigrated, she always respected and supported Parliament. We should be very grateful for that.
The Queen was completely reliable, a source of comfort not just to failing politicians but to a nation that feared it might be failing
“Between her ministers – not just prime ministers – there was regular contact. After Labour won the election in 1997, I went up to the Palace, where she appointed me, like the other new secretaries of state, to the Privy Council and bestowed on me the seals of office. They are actual seals, which are given to you and you take back to your Department to be locked in a safe. When, just a year later, I was sacked and the seals were taken out of the safe and back to Buckingham Palace, my diary was empty and my phone stopped ringing, my office was astonished to get a call from the Palace. No one else wanted to have anything to do with me, but the Queen wanted to see me. I was invited to take tea with the Queen, for her to thank me for my service as Secretary of State.”
And here is Iain Duncan Smith, speaking a few minutes later:
“When I ceased being leader of the Conservative Party – it happens quite a lot, so I think the Queen was pretty used to it – she kindly asked me to take leave of her officially. I thought that was pretty kind – nobody else wanted me to, so it was decent of her to do that…
“She very sweetly asked me how I was, being clearly sympathetic about what had happened. I just shrugged and said, ‘Well, Ma’am, nobody died and I’m still here,’ whereupon she roared with laughter. The funny thing was that she then paused and looked at me, not sure whether I had actually made a joke. I laughed too, and then she laughed again – whether at me or with me, I could not figure out. That was something to relish.”
In both cases, the politician had failed, and no one else in public life wanted to offer sympathy, for in our careerist world failure is unfashionable. Commentators tend to judge politicians by how many elections they win, how long they stay in office and what they can be said to have achieved. The Queen was not infected by this addiction to success. She had compassion on two public figures who had suffered public humiliation, and consoled them. What balm this was to their souls, and how wise it was too. A politician who has failed in one role may well go on to make a success of another: both Harman and Duncan Smith did so. And peaceful democratic politics in any case needs good losers, who do the state an indispensable service by accepting defeat rather than taking up arms, or inciting their supporters to march on the Capitol.
All of us fail at some point, perhaps at many points. We harbour ambitions which turn out, through adverse circumstance or our own incapacity, to be quite beyond us. We strive for greatness, suppose we are making some progress towards it, and then with brutal suddenness everything goes wrong. Boris Johnson has been known to recite these lines from Lycidas by John Milton:
"Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days:
But the fair guerdon when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind Fury with the abhorred shears
And slits the thin-spun life."
Fame is certainly the spur to Johnson, and to many other politicians. It was not, however, the spur to the Queen. From the age of 10, when her uncle, Edward VIII, abdicated and her father ascended the throne as George VI, there could be little doubt she was going to be famous. While still a girl she set out to learn from her father the proper conduct of a constitutional sovereign who is above politics. This role would fall to her the moment he died.
Here was a heavy responsibility, but also a predictable one. Princess Elizabeth knew what awaited her, so was spared any reason to be a careerist. She had no need to compete with others to get to the top. She was already at the top. Edward VIII had shown what a burden this could be, and in 1936 put his idea of happiness, marriage to Mrs Simpson, ahead of his duties as King. But it was not in Elizabeth II’s nature to be self-indulgent. From her earliest years she brought a marvellous conscientiousness to her role, and demonstrated by her demeanour that she would not be selfish.
We liked having a head of state who had not got there by pushing and shoving and promoting herself, but accepted the role as an unavoidable duty
Politicians are forced to compete with each other. Much of their energy is consumed in elections, and in partisan jockeying for position between elections. They may, no doubt, learn much from these struggles, but they are also exposed to fearful temptations and wounding accusations. For a considerable part of the public sees them as a bunch of scrabbling careerists, who will strike any low blow in order to do each other down, and are all as bad as each other. The feral beasts of the media are alert to any lapses that may have been committed by our politicians, and so are the merciless bands of simplistic, self-righteous citizens that infest Twitter. It is not an edifying sight.
When the Queen died, almost all of this stopped. For a time, people no longer strove to believe the worst of each other, and MPs addressed each other with perfect civility. In death, she unified us, and reminded us that those we disagree with are not necessarily scoundrels.
Walter Bagehot said that in a constitutional monarchy, the sovereign has three rights: “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn”. We are not likely to learn how often the Queen warned, but she was certainly consulted, and many ministers have testified that she was remarkably knowledgeable: she did the work, day by day, read her red boxes, and had met everyone, including every American president since Truman, a unique record. Edward Heath, her prime minister from 1970 to 1974, and a man not given to flowery compliments, said she was “one of the best-informed people in the world”.
During the Suez debacle of 1956, she knew more than some ministers did. How painful this debacle must have been for her. But it was her prime minister, Anthony Eden, a glamorous figure who until that point seemed to have the winning touch, and had indeed won the general election of 1955, who took the blame for a mendacious and cack-handed intrigue, which ended by showing the world that Britain could no longer act without American approval.
Winston Churchill had said as early as 1942 that if anything were to happen to him (and there was an obvious danger that on his extensive wartime travels by air something would happen to him), the King should ask Eden to become prime minister. Only much later did Churchill’s remark to his private secretary in April 1955, “I don’t believe Anthony can do it,” uttered late at night after giving a farewell dinner to the lovely young Queen Elizabeth II in Downing Street, become public knowledge.
Anthony proceeded to demonstrate, at Suez, that he could not do it. From 1956 onwards, the British Establishment had to come to terms with reduced status and reduced confidence. Germany’s post-war economic miracle induced an inferiority complex in London. They had Mercedes Benz, we had British Leyland, an amalgamation of once-great manufacturers, bodged together by British politicians, incompetently run by British managers, plagued like other parts of the British economy by strikes called by British trade unions, productive of vehicles that were not reliable.
The Queen was completely reliable, a source of comfort not just to failing politicians but to a nation that feared it might be failing. She of course accepted the advice of her ministers that Britain should join the European Economic Community, which happened in 1973. There was a kind of modernising, technocratic politician in this period who assumed that Europe was the future, and that joining the EEC on not especially favourable terms was better than not joining it at all. The Queen duly visited Germany and France, and charmed the Germans and the French, whenever her ministers wished her to do so. She is mourned there, as she is mourned in many parts of the world.
But while she was punctilious in following the advice of whichever government, Conservative or Labour, had won the last general election, it cannot be said she shared the technocratic assumptions of a large part of the British political class. Modernisers declared that the British Empire was over. The Queen naturally accepted this, having seen many colonies become independent states, but believed that these worldwide ties could and should be preserved and cherished in the Commonwealth. She did not want to cut and run.
Her prime ministers found it a relief, in their weekly audiences with her, to talk to someone who knew much about politics and its problems
Tradition, Michael Oakeshott remarks in passing in his great essay Rationalism in Politics, is flexible. The Queen was in this sense a traditionalist. She could change because she had not concluded, as an intellectual might, that some ideology supplied the answers to political questions. She was born in 1926 and her early life was that of an upper-class girl who learned good manners, Christian piety, how to dance and speak French, the enjoyment of games such as hide and seek, and the love of animals. Intellectual life was considered superfluous, if not harmful. The essential thing was to be initiated into a tradition of behaviour.
This turned out to be an excellent preparation for being a constitutional monarch. As already noted, she did not intend to have a career of her own. She married young, in 1947, and her husband, Prince Philip, continued with his career. For a short time she was able to live a relatively normal life as the wife of an able and energetic naval officer, who had served with distinction during the Second World War and would have risen on merit to a high level. They soon had their first two children, Charles born in 1948 and Anne in 1950.
But her father, the King, in his youth likewise a naval officer, who had served at the age of 20 at the Battle of Jutland, was very tired after the Second World War, and not at all well. George VI was a heavy smoker, a recreation that would help to kill him in February 1952, at the age of only 56.
What a test for the new Queen and her husband. Would their tradition prove equal to it? He had to give up his naval career, for him a severe sacrifice, and she to assume the burden of becoming monarch, while mourning her beloved father. The rest of their long lives would be devoted to the duties of a sovereign and her consort.
The coronation, held in 1953, was the first great spectacle of the television age. The presence of the cameras enforced high standards: because the event was going to be seen by many millions of people, it was rehearsed in minute detail. Gone was the slovenly confusion of Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838. A democracy expected better than that, and revelled in the sonorous commentary provided by Richard Dimbleby. Ancient (or partially ancient) ceremonies and the latest technology complemented each other.
The royal family was left on a dangerously exposed pinnacle of adulation. This could not last, for the family was composed of human beings who were bound to get into difficulties, often of a marital nature. The power of the officer class, great in the 15 years after the war, declined, and the media moved from respect to disrespect.
The Queen remained herself. She kept the vow she had made on her 21st birthday in 1947, when she promised “that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service”, and went on:
“But I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
She depended on the reciprocal relationship which existed between her and her people. This essential point is invisible to rationalists who look at the monarchy and see only irrationality: a privileged family which inherited its position and preserves outdated pre-democratic customs.
If the rationalist outlook were generally shared, we would by now have done away with the monarchy. But it is not generally shared: throughout the Queen’s long reign there was a palpable desire, among most of her subjects, to support her. We liked having a head of state who had not got there by pushing and shoving and promoting herself, but accepted the role as an unavoidable duty. The crowds which turned out for her were there to declare their support. The sovereign and her subjects had a bond which is invisible to rationalists, but which is still real, and of essential importance.
The same phenomenon can be observed with the new King. People have turned out in large numbers to see him because they want him to succeed. This does not necessarily mean he will succeed, but it greatly increases the chances that he will. We are joined in a common enterprise, where in a curious way we look after each other. Let intellectuals scoff if they wish. Humanity is not intellectual. We know, however, that we would rather not have some clapped-out politician as our head of state. Nor, in justice to them, can one imagine Tony Blair or David Cameron would wish to take on the role, though some lesser figure who never quite got to the top might regard becoming head of state as a satisfactory consolation prize. Satisfactory, perhaps, for him or for her, but not for us.
“God help me to make good my vow,” Princess Elizabeth had said. To her this was of the greatest importance, as she made plain in her Christmas broadcasts, for example this one in 2014:
“For me, the life of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate today, is an inspiration and an anchor in my life. A role model of reconciliation and forgiveness, he stretched out his hands in love, acceptance and healing. Christ’s example has taught me to seek to respect and value all people of whatever faith or none.”
As I typed that out, I noticed she said “seek to respect”. She was not making extravagant moral claims for herself. But when she visited Ireland in 2011, people did feel she respected and valued them. The visit was a triumphant success. Everywhere she visited, including many unfashionable parts of the United Kingdom, people felt she respected and valued them. This is a moral or spiritual quality which is difficult to fake for more than a short period of time, and which can certainly not be put on for a period of three-quarters of a century.
Her prime ministers found it a relief, in their weekly audiences with her, to talk to someone who knew much about politics and its problems, sought to encourage rather than judge them, never leaked a word of what they said to the press, and did not covet their job. She lived by different rules, and that is one reason why we loved her. God save the King.
Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Kings & Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs since 1066. His new book, Boris Johnson: The Rise and Fall of a Troublemaker at Number 10, will be published on 29th September.
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