Transient British governments and prime ministers come and go, but since February 1952, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II has provided the United Kingdom with continuity and stability.
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Now aged 91, in August she saw her consort, H.R.H Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, retire at the age of 96 from further public duties.
His retirement, and the decision of their grandson, Prince William, to concentrate on public duties after concluding his flying career, serves as a useful reminder of the centrality of the British royal family in holding together a fractious and often disunited kingdom.
It is also a salutary counterpoint to a society that endlessly insists, in an impoverished language, on rights and entitlements, while seldom speaking of duty or the importance of shouldering responsibilities.
During the week he announced his retirement, Prince Philip may have been amused by the government’s plan to raise the state pension age to 68 for men and women.
He would have some sympathy with Robert Kennedy’s view that “age is not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.”
As a young girl in 1936, the queen had to live through the trauma of her uncle’s abdication
While others think of retirement, the royal family has eschewed all talk of abdication – not least because, as a young girl in 1936, the queen had to live through the trauma of her uncle’s abdication. One abdication in a lifetime was one too many.
Edward VIII not only let his infatuation for Wallis Simpson overcome his call to public service and to honor the sacred coronation vows, but his dalliance with the Third Reich left a stench of treachery around the royals.
It proved to be a happier turning point for the family than might have been the case.
The decision of Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI, and her mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, to stay in London during the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz, greatly endeared them to their suffering people, rescued the reputation of the royal family, and set a very high bar of dedicated public service which, for over 60 years, the queen has carefully consolidated, frequently emphasizing the importance of charitable and volunteer work.
Notwithstanding recent mawkish attempts to rake up salacious stories around the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 20 years ago, the royal family continues to be held in considerable respect and to play a pivotal role in the life of the nation.
While respecting the constitutional parameters within which they must operate, the royals’ influence in significant national debates – from Brexit to Scottish independence, from Anglo-Irish relations to the Commonwealth – should not be underestimated.
In 1947, on her 21st birthday, in a broadcast from Cape Town in South Africa, Princess Elizabeth made clear her intentions: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial country to which we all belong… God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share it.”
Elizabeth II has continually returned to the fundamental theme of service for the common good
She has returned to this fundamental theme of service for the common good again and again.
In 2012, I was present in Westminster Hall when, on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee (she and Victoria are the only English monarchs to celebrate 60 years on the throne), Her Majesty addressed both houses of parliament – many of whose members were not born when she came to the throne.
Elizabeth II could justifiably say that during her reign she has seen it all – including 13 prime ministers, from Sir Winston Churchill to Theresa May. In the choppy waters after an election, or following the resignation of a prime minister, she has the right to appoint whomever she believes can command a majority in the House of Commons.
And the queen has a special relationship with whomever holds that high office.
Although a constitutional monarch, who remains politically neutral, the queen holds a weekly audience with the prime minister at which she has a right and a duty to express her views on government matters. If the meeting cannot take place face to face, they will speak by telephone.
During their first audience, Churchill, her first prime minister, told the queen that although he could offer her advice from a lifetime of experience, a time would come when she would advise prime ministers younger than herself. One such was David Cameron, who remarked that his weekly meetings with the queen helped him to “sort out the problems” in his own head.
Beyond advice, she has given royal assent to more than 3,500 bills now on the UK’s statute books. Royal assent – consent to a measure becoming law – has not been refused since 1707.
After a general election and in each year that follows, the queen attends parliament for the annual State Opening ceremony. She opens parliament in person, and sets out her government’s program in the Queen’s Speech. Until the speech has been read, neither house can proceed to deliberate public business.
In a classic piece of parliamentary theatre, the queen sends her messenger, Black Rod, to announce her arrival in the House of Lords.
The queen has something more important than crude political power
The doors on the Commons are slammed in his face and after knocking three times, he invites the commoners to hear the Gracious Address in the House of Lords. This is to remind the monarch of the limitations of her power.
In 1867, Walter Bagehot, the author of The English Constitution, said that the British monarch “has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.”
Elizabeth II has exercised all three of these rights, but she has something more important than crude political power. It is called wisdom.
She makes no claim that longevity alone is enough, remarking that: “Over such a period, one can observe that the experience of venerable old age can be a mighty guide but not a prerequisite for success in public office. I am therefore very pleased to be addressing many younger parliamentarians and also those bringing such a wide range of background and experience to your vital, national work.”
Evolution of power
For many reasons, her 2012 address was a remarkable occasion – not least because of the setting.
It was here, at Westminster, at a meeting of parliament in 1266, that Simon de Montfort and the barons contested the supremacy of Henry III.
Over the intervening centuries, Westminster has seen the ebb and flow of transient power. From monarch to humblest citizen, it is no bad thing to be reminded of the nation’s story and the importance of passing on the baton to the next generation.
Most notably, it was in Westminster Hall that, in January 1649, Charles I – King of England, Scotland and Ireland – was tried, convicted and executed for high treason, leading to the abolition of the monarchy and the declaration of a republic.
Quite rapidly, England tired of Cromwell’s republic and in 1660, the monarchy was restored and Charles II ascended the throne as the country’s first constitutional monarch.
Monarchy is the oldest form of government. In England, its duties have evolved over a thousand years of history.
The delicate balance that emerged from England’s Civil War and the restoration of a constitutional monarchy is that while the sovereign is head of state, the power to make and enact legislation resides with an elected parliament.
The sovereign may not have a political or executive role – but in her less formal role as “head of the nation,” the queen assumes constitutional and ceremonial duties that are a focus for national identity, generating unity, pride, stability and continuity.
The phrase “the queen in parliament” is used by constitutionalists as a formal description of the British legislature, which comprises the sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons.
In an ecumenical era, Queen Elizabeth II has been a force for interdenominational Christian reconciliation
The queen also has a formal relationship with the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The monarch’s role also has a religious dimension – and the queen, as a committed Christian, has never had any difficulty reconciling her personal faith with her role as head of the Church of England.
In a more ecumenical era, she has been a force for interdenominational Christian reconciliation. My guess would be that St. Thomas More – lord chancellor of England and speaker of the House of Commons, who was tried in Westminster Hall for refusing to accept the supremacy of Henry VIII over matters religious – would have been able to utter the phrase “the king’s good servant but God’s first” and found little difficulty in serving Queen Elizabeth II and the Almighty.
Centrality of service
If the walls could speak, there are few things Westminster Hall could not tell you about England’s history.
So, it was here, at the 2012 ceremony, that a Diamond Jubilee window – a gift from the members of both houses and based on the royal coat of arms – was unveiled to mark the monarch's 60-year reign.
It replaced a window blown out during an Irish republican bombing.
Standing where Charles I had stood, Queen Elizabeth reflected on the centrality of public service and the role of her family.
The queen bluntly told the peers and MPs that Britain is no longer an imperial power
She told parliamentarians: “During these years as your queen, the support of my family has, across the generations, been beyond measure. I would like above all to declare my resolve to continue, with the support of my family, to serve the people of this great nation of ours to the best of my ability through the changing times ahead.”
She may well have had in mind the inevitable big constitutional decisions that had dogged the UK and would come to a head four years later.
But she pulled no punches in insisting that, beyond the pageant, pomp and circumstance, she is no queen empress. As she bluntly told the peers and MPs, Britain is “no longer an imperial power, [and] we have been coming to terms with what this means for ourselves and for our relations with the rest of the world.”
Role not lost
There were echoes here of one of the most important speeches of the 20th century.
In 1962, Dean Acheson, the former secretary of State, delivered an address to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He had some withering remarks about the UK:
Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role. The attempt to play a separate power role – that is, a role apart from Europe, a role based on a ‘special relationship’ with the United States, a role based on being head of a ‘commonwealth’ which has no political structure, or unity, or strength – this role is about played out. Great Britain, attempting to be a broker between the United States and Russia, has seemed to conduct policy as weak as its military power.
Yet, in 2017 the UK still hankers after “a special relationship” and a “role apart from Europe.” It has also been rediscovering the importance of the Commonwealth – underestimated by Acheson but never by Queen Elizabeth.
The queen was meticulous in not allowing any privately held views about Brexit to be known
In her 2012 address, the queen talked about the countless visits she has made to Commonwealth countries:
These overseas tours are a reminder of our close affinity with the Commonwealth, encompassing about one-third of the world's population. My own association with the Commonwealth has taught me that the most important contact between nations is usually contact between its peoples. An organization dedicated to certain values, the Commonwealth has flourished and grown by successfully promoting and protecting that contact.
Although the queen was meticulous in not allowing any privately held views about Brexit to be known or canvassed, there can be little doubt that she, like the majority of her subjects, had watched the leaching away of British sovereignty with some concern.
What is abundantly clear, however, is that her love of the Commonwealth is increasingly reflected in the way Britain now sees its future.
In this respect, she has been proven right and Acheson wrong.
Face of the future
World trade patterns have fundamentally altered with the extraordinary changes in connectivity and the emergence of new networks that make the old alliances and trading blocs look antiquated. The UK generates 80 percent of its gross domestic product from services.
McKinsey & Company calculates that in this new world, the modern Commonwealth network is tailor-made to capitalize on a shared language, cultural institutions and other opportunities.
Within this new architecture – with common legal systems, common values, a network of over 500 universities and shared professional associations – and with some 20 percent of global GDP shifting from the G7 and Western countries to fast-growing states in the developing world, the Commonwealth seems to be in the right place at the right time.
When the queen described the modern Commonwealth as “in many ways the face of the future,” was she off the mark?
Her affection for the Commonwealth, over which she presides, reflects her deep love of the UK and sense of responsibility for protecting its future unity.
Elizabeth II is also Queen of Scotland – which had its own parliament until the Act of Union in 1707, when the parliament in London took responsibility for Scottish legislation.
In a 1997 referendum, Scots voted in favor of restoring a Scottish parliament. Its first session, with 129 members, was held in 1999. The queen formally opened a new seat of the Scottish Parliament in 2004, in a new building opposite the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.
Under legislation that established the Scottish Parliament, members take an oath of allegiance to the Crown, but as a surge in nationalism demonstrated, devolution of powers was not to be the end of the argument.
Elizabeth II’s remarks before the Scottish independence referendum were seen as a gentle but crucial intervention
A referendum on independence was subsequently held in 2014 and there was a real concern that the Scottish nationalists would secure a yes vote.
The queen remarked that she hoped voters would “think very carefully about the future.” It was widely seen as a gentle but crucial intervention.
No one should have been surprised.
In 1977, at her Silver Jubilee, she had also reflected on an upsurge in nationalism:
I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred, at home and in our international dealings, on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom.
Although David Cameron’s remark that the Queen had “purred down the line” on being told the result of the 2014 independence referendum was indiscreet, there is little doubting its accuracy – or the role that she played in securing the outcome.
An even more contested part of her kingdom is Northern Ireland – which is why her visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011, at the invitation of President Mary McAleese, was so remarkable.
Not least because of the tormented history of the two countries, including the 1979 murder of Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten, by the Provisional IRA.
The queen’s capacity to act as a reconciler, following the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and especially her visit to the scene of the 1920 Bloody Sunday Massacre at Croke Park in Dublin, was a phenomenal success. It left Irish eyes smiling and helped heal a tortured history.
Whether it be for her moral leadership, her canny wisdom, her ability to navigate turbulent waters, her centrality in knitting together society and the State, her personal embodiment of the nation’s history, her passionate belief in public service, or her determination to pass to her children, grandchildren, family and nation their rightful legacy, there is little doubt that the UK has every reason to be grateful for its postwar Elizabethan age.