'A changeless human reference point in British life': Parliament pays tribute to the Queen
House of Commons, 9 September 2022: Prime Minister Liz Truss leads the tributes to Queen Elizabeth II | Alamy
Parliamentary sketch-writer Patrick Kidd hears the tributes paid to a very special sovereign
No one has met more politicians than the late Queen Elizabeth II. As well as her 15 prime ministers, 22 leaders of the official opposition and the 1,336 men and women whom she appointed to her Privy Council, she met members of 19 Parliaments assembled in her name, the most for any monarch since Henry VI. It was no wonder that so many wished to pay tribute after her death: 199 speeches were made over more than 10 hours of debate in the Commons; 159 over two days in the Lords.
There had been rather less fuss at the start of her reign. Though messages of condolence from leaders around the world on the death of George VI were read out in the Chamber for several days by the Speaker, only the party leaders took part in a brief debate on a humble address to express the sympathy of the Commons.
Winston Churchill concluded remarks about the late King by praising the “fair and youthful figure” who had succeeded him.
“She is heir to all our traditions and glories,” he said, “and to all our perplexities and dangers, heir to all our united strength and loyalty. She comes to the throne when a tormented mankind stands uncertainly poised between world catastrophe and a golden age.” Clement Attlee said she had the “goodwill and affection of all her subjects” and hoped that she would “live long and happily”.
Seventy years later, the Queen’s final Prime Minister returned to the words of her first, recalling that Churchill had said the news of King George’s death had “stilled the clatter and traffic of 20th century life in many lands”. Liz Truss added that the Queen had “reinvented monarchy for the modern age”. Quoting from the Queen’s Christmas message in 1957 as an example of enduring wisdom, Truss said: “We need a special kind of courage so that we can show the world that we are not afraid of the future.”
Keir Starmer was the first of five MPs in the debate to quote from Philip Larkin’s poem written for the Silver Jubilee: “In times when nothing stood/ But worsened, or grew strange/ There was one constant good:/ She did not change.” Like many, he drew attention to her message of hope and promise that “we will meet again” broadcast during the Covid pandemic. “At the time we were most alone, at a time when we had been driven apart, she held the nation close in a way no one else could have done,” the Labour leader said.
Perhaps the most eloquent tribute was paid by the previous prime minister, Boris Johnson, who said he had been moved to tears when asked to pre-record a BBC tribute to be used after the Queen’s death and speak of her in the past tense. “Millions of us are trying to understand why we are feeling this deep, personal and almost familial sense of loss,” he said. “Perhaps it is partly that she has always been there: a changeless human reference point in British life… that we have perhaps been lulled into thinking that she might be in some way eternal.” He reflected on her broadcast in 1940, aged only 14, that was intended to reassure the nation’s children during the Blitz that “in the end all will be well”. Comforting her subjects’ fears was her life’s mission.
Appropriately, given the Queen’s sense of humour, the most laughter came in response to speeches by two elder stateswomen: Theresa May, who mentioned that her weekly audience was the only meeting she had that would not be leaked to the media and spoke affectionately of visits to Balmoral, and Dame Margaret Beckett, who recalled receiving a chocolate bar on the Queen’s coronation and said how surprised she was then that people thought 25 was young.
Appropriately, given the Queen’s sense of humour, the most laughter came in response to speeches by two elder stateswomen
Iain Duncan Smith drew on a pair of poets for his speech, quoting WH Auden (“We thought that love would last forever; we were wrong”) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, recalling that he had begun to recite his verse on the Ship of State at a Privy Council meeting and the Queen had joined in word-perfect. “Sail on, O Union, strong and great!/ Humanity with all its fears,/ With all the hopes of future years,/ Is hanging breathless on thy fate!”
More prosaically, Tracey Crouch said she had been comforted in her grief on hearing the news by her six-year-old son, who took her hand and said: “Don’t worry, mummy; the King will look after us now.”
Parliament has long sent a humble address to congratulate the Queen on landmarks in her life and reign, but it is only recently that debate was extended beyond the party leaders.
For the Silver Jubilee in 1977, for instance, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher spoke for all in their parties, with Edward Heath, as a former PM, allowed a short turn to speak of the Queen’s “kindness, consideration and courtesy”.
Twenty-five years later, it was again just six party leaders who spoke, led by Tony Blair who quoted from her 1999 Christmas message: “Fairness and compassion, justice and tolerance; these are the landmarks from the past which can guide us through the years ahead.”
The same was true in 2006, when only the leaders spoke in a debate on the Queen’s 80th birthday, and the DUP’s Ian Paisley, who had been born 15 days earlier, said: “She brings to us all a pleasant youthfulness of spirit. She has demonstrated to us all that growing old is not a condemnation.” He then quoted Robert Browning: “Grow old along with me! The best has [sic] yet to be.”
It was a more poetic tribute than some of the remarks made in a debate on the Queen becoming our longest reigning monarch in 2015, when Angus Robertson, the then SNP leader in Westminster, recalled discussing with her the traffic reports on Terry Wogan’s breakfast radio show and Tim Farron spoke of the time when a Liberal Democrat councillor in his constituency alarmed security by lunging at her with a sharp piece of Kendal mint cake.
None of these quite compare, however, with the lengthy anecdote told by Michael Ellis a year later, in a two-hour debate on the Queen’s 90th birthday. Seldom has the introduction “it is interesting to note” been more misleading. Essentially it involved a stained-glass window that was commissioned by Parliament to mark the Diamond Jubilee and which almost featured a unicorn with his chain round the wrong way, but the mistake was spotted in time.
“I dread to think what might have happened if it had been the wrong way round,” Ellis concluded. “The story would have been told for a long to come.” Particularly, Speaker John Bercow noted, by Mr Ellis.
Often, less is more. As in 2015, when Peter Bottomley merely stood up, thanked the Queen on behalf of all the charities she supported, and sat down – “A great speech,” remarked Bercow. “Possibly his greatest ever.” – so the veteran Tory backbencher did not witter on in his remarks after her death. Bottomley’s speech ran to just 52 words, some of which were “love”, “respect”, “gratitude”, “virtues”, “kindness” and “pride”, and concluded with: “We thank her. We miss her. And we should say what she would wish: God save the King.” It was all that was needed. Sometimes Father of the House knows best.
Patrick Kidd is editor of The Times diary column and author of The Weak Are A Long Time In Politics
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