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Lords Diary: Lord Janvrin

4 min read

Prorogation means a quieter week but includes a breakfast with Nicholas Coleridge who is heavily involved in the planning of the Platinum Jubilee and then a board committee meeting of the British Library.

This is such a special institution, all about knowledge not just books – knowledge accessible for everyone in the digital age.

Then down to the Cotswolds for the weekend for grandchildren and not enough gardening. As usual I am praying for the end of the roadworks on the M4 whilst trying to work out where I stand on smart motorways.  

I find myself watching the State Opening on television this year. I reflect that I had my share of State Openings during my time as the Queen’s private secretary. This year will have been a busier one behind the scenes with Her Majesty’s decision that the Prince of Wales would read the speech from the throne – another example of her management of age and transition.

Tony Jay always threatened to write a series entitled Yes Your Majesty. I think on balance I am glad he didn’t…

There is plenty of symbolism on show at the State Opening, not least the Crown in Parliament. With our unwritten constitution symbolism, history, and convention assume special importance – hence my friend Lord Hennessy’s “good chap” theory of government. I found myself reflecting on this, and indeed on the challenges of codifying an unwritten constitution without unintended consequences, during the debates on the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act in the last session.

The State Opening of Parliament is about the Queen’s role as head of state. The Platinum Jubilee weekend will be all about the Queen’s role as head of nation. It was Sir Antony Jay, the inspired co-creator of Yes Minister, who first made this distinction after he had written the script for Elizabeth R, the excellent BBC documentary made in 1992. Tony Jay always threatened to write a series entitled Yes Your Majesty. I think on balance I am glad he didn’t… 

The Queen as head of state is about the constitution, state papers, audiences and state visits. The Queen’s role as head of nation is much more difficult to describe, being about the soul of this country. In the mix are: expressing identity and the national mood (think of the Queen’s Covid speech); providing a sense of stability and continuity to allow for and indeed facilitate change; being a part of how we as a country recognise success and achievement (more than just the honours system): and supporting the idea of service to others – public service including military, community, voluntary and charity. 

I am sure that this less defined head of nation role will be much in evidence over the Platinum Jubilee as also in this mix is the need to provide an occasional excuse to have a national party. 

The Golden Jubilee in 2002 fell on my watch as private secretary. As the previous jubilee had been 25 years before we had something of a blank piece of paper at the start, but one of the essential elements we were keen to promote was the street party – bringing people together at the most local community level. We established with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport a “Street Party Toolbox” online giving advice on closing streets, hiring tables, finding bunting, etc, etc. In the run-up to the Golden Jubilee some of the media were telling us that nobody was interested, but we knew that thousands of these toolboxes had been downloaded. The rest, as they say, is history.

And so back to business as usual. As the debates on the Queen’s Speech begin I have a useful trustees’ meeting of the Normandy Memorial Trust which has built a stunning British D-Day memorial above Gold Beach – a moving and rewarding visit if holidays take anyone in that direction. And I have just caught the portrait painters’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries – an unusually large number of self-portraits reflecting the impact of lockdowns… 


Lord Janvrin is a crossbench peer and former private secretary to the Queen.

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