DID you watch the Queen’s Christmas poignant and personal broadcast this year? Or maybe, like Jeremy Corbyn, you’re a bit hazy about whether you did or didn’t.
When interest in the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Di was at its height in 1980, 28 million switched on. Since then viewing figures have fallen off, though the broadcast is still one of the most watched Christmas Day programmes.
Growing up, it was part of the Dunlop family Christmas ritual. At 3 o’clock, no matter what mayhem was under way, my Dad would call order and we’d gather reverentially around the TV to listen to Her Majesty reflect on the year past, and the year to come.
I haven’t always been so punctilious in succeeding years. This year I made a point of switching on. Somehow it felt unusually important. In 2022 the Queen will celebrate her Platinum Jubilee – 70 years on the throne. A milestone unlikely to be surpassed. Our longest-serving monarch. Only three other monarchs across the globe and throughout history have reigned longer. And who would bet against their records being broken over the next couple of years by our queen? Louis XIV, the Sun King, eclipsed.
The moment also feels significant, because the Queen has been such a continuous and stable presence in all our lives. So ubiquitous, and understated, there’s a risk she, and what she stands for, are taken for granted. Apparently so familiar, yet in reality unknowable to all but a few.
What words best describe this remarkable lady? Dutiful, faithful, loyal and selfless spring immediately to mind. Sensible, stoical, resilient and wise too. Unflashy and unfashionable qualities when measured against the more superficial attributes, for which today’s transitory celebrities are lionised.
Born in the year of the General Strike, when Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister, her reign has spanned the end of Empire to the start of a fourth industrial revolution. She’s the last steam ship monarch, and the first zoom one. No matter what the upheavals, and over seven decades there have been a few, she’s always embodied a national spirit of ‘keep calm and carry on’.
It can’t be easy to live your entire life in a goldfish bowl. Prince Harry’s certainly right about that. Every private action pored over for public implications, including this year where to stay, and who to have, for Christmas. Conscious continually of setting the right example. A life of service without retirement.
I’m sure the Queen has regrets. Things she wishes had turned out differently. It’s certainly not been unbroken plain sailing – far from it. 1992 was her ‘annus horribilis’, as the marriages of Prince Charles and Prince Andrew fell apart and fire consumed the ceiling of St George’s Hall at Windsor Castle. And she might be forgiven for remembering 2021 as an ‘annus tristis’, coping with unfriendly fire from across the Atlantic whilst grieving for an irreplaceable consort.
As she approaches her 97th year, the Queen is understandably pacing herself, and long may she continue to reign over us. We are nevertheless at the dusk of this Elizabethan Age. A time of change inevitably lies ahead. How will we react? The strength of public affection expressed for Prince Philip took many by surprise. The sense of national loss when the Queen is no longer with us will be even more profound.
The Queen has never courted popularity, and yet she’s comfortably the most popular member of the Royal Family, with net approval ratings elected politicians can only dream of. And people throughout the United Kingdom still overwhelmingly support the monarchy – testament to the impeccable way the Queen has performed her role.
Garret Fitzgerald, the former Irish Taoiseach, once remarked apropos of Ireland’s economic transformation: “That’s fine in practice, but will it work in theory?” Constitutional monarchy shouldn’t work in theory. In a less differential 21st Century, accident of birth is hardly the most obvious method for choosing the head of state of a modern liberal democracy. It works in practice because the Queen has put the needs of the institution – and ours – before her own.
The 19th century political journalist and celebrated interpreter of Britain’s unwritten constitution, Walter Bagehot, drew a distinction between the ‘dignified’ and the ‘efficient’ parts of our constitutional arrangements. In his view, monarchy represents the dignified elements “which excite and preserve the reverence of the population”; government and parliament are the efficient “by which [the constitution] in fact works and rules”. The Queen has been never less than dignified, even when her governments have been less than efficient.
While the Queen has little real power, she has immense ‘soft’ power. In Bagehot’s often cited dictum the Monarch retains three rights: “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, and the right to warn”.
The exercise of these rights is generally understood to take place at the Queen’s weekly audience with her Prime Minister. Boris Johnson is the Queen’s 14th Prime Minister. No-one will ever know what passes between them. He would be wise, like his predecessors, to draw on her years of experience. There must be little she’s not seen before, although the Johnson premiership may be testing to the limits that assumption.
Queen Elizabeth will be a hard act to follow. When the time comes, Prince Charles and Prince William will perform the role in their own way. Striving to uphold the constitution’s dignified part, by earning the affection of more questioning younger generations. They could not have a better guide than her example of complete selflessness.
The nation will come together next June for four days of celebration. To give thanks to the Queen for 70 years of devoted service to her country. Our chance to make a fuss of the one person who – left to her own devices – would probably prefer no fuss at all. Yet, like a trouper, she’ll throw herself into it. So let’s make the fuss. She deserves it.
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