The Monarchy

The Queen: Service with Honour

Due to her father’s early death, George’s elder daughter, Elizabeth II, born in 1926, (1952-2022) came to the throne early. Her own healthy lifestyle ensured a long life, one longer than that of her younger sister, Margaret, who, in contrast, was a heavy drinker and smoker. In 1947, Elizabeth had married her third cousin, Philip Mountbatten, who became the Duke of Edinburgh. A descendant of Victoria, he was a member of the Greek and Danish royal families. By the time of her accession, she already had children and the succession was assured. The first monarch since William IV never to have been imperial, she became Queen of the United Kingdom and of many Commonwealth countries. There was much talk of a ‘New Elizabethan Age,’ and a widespread optimism helped by Britain coming out of recession and the ending of rationing. Her coronation in 1953 was the cause of many households purchasing television sets or watching for the first time.

‘Throughout this memorable day I have been uplifted and sustained by the knowledge that your thoughts and prayers were with me. I have been aware all the time that my peoples, spread far and wide throughout every Continent and ocean in the world, were united to support me in the task to which I have now been dedicated with such solemnity.’
                       — The Queen’s Broadcast to the Commonwealth after her coronation.

After the coronation, Elizabeth, who had been on an imperial tour when her father died in 1952, embarked on a lengthy world tour that captured the wide-ranging nature of the British world and enormous interest in the monarch. Vast crowds, for example, turned out to greet the Queen in Australian cities.

Cinema news-reels and television provided publicity for such episodes. The royal family indeed adapted to television. The Queen’s first televised Christmas broadcast followed in 1957, and the wedding of Princess Margaret in 1960 was also televised.

At this stage, the Queen was very much head of what appeared to be a settled and stable society, one with relatively few challenges to her position or image. Her duties included opening Parliament and holding meetings of the Privy Council, awarding honours and decorations, and receiving visiting heads of state. Her private interests included a strong commitment to horse-racing, and she was also very fond of dogs.

There was much in common between the Queen and George III, notably a fundamental piety and, as a related factor, a strong sense of duty. Both liked country pursuits. Less happily, each had serious problems with their children and also oversaw the loss of an empire.

The 1960s brought challenges, not least the rapid loss of colonies, serious economic and fiscal problems, the development of Scottish and Welsh separatism, the outbreak of large-scale violence in Northern Ireland, and the decline of deference and turn to the new linked to ‘the Sixties,’ a change not restricted to that station. There was also, from 1964, the need to confront the possibilities for change represented by a majority Labour government. A Private Eye cover of that year with the Queen reading the Speech opening Parliament had her saying ‘… and I hope you realise I didn’t write this crap.’

There was the possibility of an ‘ultra’ reaction, with consideration of a military coup linked to Lord Louis Mountbatten, but the Queen would have nothing of such plans. Instead, she adapted and with Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister in 1964-70 and 1974-6, developed not only a good working relationship, but also a degree of mutual affection. This was satirised in the 1975 Private Eye cover of Wilson formally greeting the Queen at Victoria Station after a state visit to France, with the Queen saying ‘Harold, we can’t go on meeting like this.’

Her relations with Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Prime Ministers in 1970-4 and 1979-90, were not so close. In particular, the Queen disapproved of Thatcher’s hostile stance toward the Commonwealth over its support for economic sanctions toward the apartheid regime in South Africa and was furious that she was not told in advance of the American invasion in 1983 of Grenada, a Commonwealth member. Nevertheless, the Queen attended Thatcher’s funeral, a marked sign of respect.

The mood of the times combined with Wilson, encouraged attempts to make the royal family more accessible. The Royal Family documentary of 1969 exposed monarchy to the close domestic scrutiny of television. Indeed, thanks to television, the royals almost became members of viewers’ extended families, treated with the fascination commonly devoted to the stars of soap operas. The investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales in 1969, a measure taken in part to assuage Welsh expectations, was also part of the televised world. In turn, The Crown, a television drama series, was treated as if truthful.

With time, the Queen became an experienced and skilful adviser of successive Prime Ministers. She had political opinions, not least a belief in the Commonwealth, but was careful not to take a public political stand and to maintain constitutional conventions. In turn, politicians helped to preserve the monarchy’s neutrality. This was far from easy in the 1970s as the country moved toward chaos, not least in 1974 when the first election, held in February, left no party with a majority. Wilson was able to form a minority government, and then sought a second election to turn this into a majority. The Queen apparently insisted that this be delayed until October in order to lessen the sense of crisis.

Wilson won a small overall majority, but a malaise became readily apparent. The cover of Private Eye on January 10, 1975, captured this: ‘Britain Sold Shock. New Man at Palace’ alongside a picture of the Queen and oil-rich King Faisal of Saudi Arabia on a state visit. Faisal was more prominent in the photograph and saying ‘My Wives and I.’ Eighty-nine MPs voted against an increase in funding for the monarchy in 1975, while Willie Hamilton waged a long republican campaign in Parliament. As a very different instance of discontent, Marcus Serjeant, in 1981, fired six blank cartridges at the Queen as she rode down the Mall for the Trooping of the Colour royal salute, but she was unharmed and, showing considerable and characteristic presence of mind, able to calm her startled horse, Burmese.

Royal Garden Party: ‘The Queen slowly made her way along, preceded by a posse of buffers in slightly better-fitting morning dress than the majority of the guests, and made conversation with certain selected invitees – the statutory person in a wheel chair with bearded mentor etc. When you see the Queen in the flesh she is always smaller and more beautifully made up than one remembers.’ — July 16, 1981, Alan Clark Diary.

There was a consolidation of a type, however, from 1979, with referenda in Scotland and Wales leading to the maintenance of constitutional arrangements. Moreover, the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979, and her re-elections in 1983 and 1987, did not appear to be a change for radicalism. She was interested in reforming British governance, but did not extend this to changing the nature of monarchy. Thatcher’s innate conservatism was on display in this attitude, and the Queen rather than Thatcher was somewhat irritated by the nature of their working relationship.

Helped by the Queen’s circumspect character, the royal family were able to maintain a public focus on its non-political roles, notably its importance to a host of good causes, especially voluntary organisations, at community and national level. This contributed to a strong sense that the royal family had an important purpose, and helped maintain social harmony. The emphasis on service was linked not only to charitable roles, but also to the military, and much royal time was accordingly spent on ceremonial functions.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the royal family, like other national institutions, was affected by the increased public criticism linked to a decline in deference. The need to consider how best to respond, both to the criticism and to the pressures of, and for, change, was further posed and accentuated by the position of the Queen’s four children, which raised questions about the nature of their upbringing. The role and matrimonial difficulties of the heir, Prince Charles, proved a particularly sensitive issue. His marriage in 1981 to Lady Diana Spencer in St Paul’s Cathedral had been watched on television by much of the population, and their subsequent very public rift excited a lot of attention and discussion. It culminated in divorce in 1996, Diana dramatically complaining, in a 1995 interview in Panorama, about Charles’s continued favour for his former girlfriend, Camilla, whom he was subsequently to marry.

Although republicanism had always been at the margins in Britain from the 1790s, the 1990s saw an upsurge in anti-monarchical sentiment and a more critical press. The tragic death of Diana in August 1997 in a car accident in Paris, unleashed a wave of national grief which the royal family seemed totally unable to comprehend nor to respond to. At the same time, analyses of those grieving were instructive of a social-politics that cohered to the issue, and, more generally, to the reputation of Princess Diana. Sadness was publicly expressed most clearly by women, the young, and homosexuals; and less so by men, the elderly and Scots. The royal practice of ‘never explain, never complain,’ of discretion and never expressing a personal opinion, left the Queen in a particularly difficult position in this case; although, in truth, any comments would have been risky. Moreover, she appears to be instinctively conciliatory and keen to avoid disagreements.

The Death of the Princess of Wales: ‘People are angry with the royal family. Blair is trying to cash in on it and the Queen has had to agree that a flag will fly at half-mast over the Palace, which has never happened before.’4 September 1997

‘…we’ve got a new monarch’ – Tony Blair,’ 3 October entry, Tony Benn Diaries

The new Labour government, that of Tony Blair elected in 1997, sought to encourage the monarchy to ‘modernise,’ which, in the terms of ‘New Labour,’ was an aspect of a discarding of the past. Also in 1997, the new government proposed completely to remove the right of hereditary peers to vote in the Lords. In the event, a portion of the hereditary peerage, elected by their peers, was able to retain voting rights; but the change to the context for monarchy represented by the House of Lords, a longstanding background, was abrupt. For example, in the part of Parliament that is for the House of Lords, the iconography is very monarchical with statues and portraits of monarchs aplenty, rather than from parliamentary history. Moreover, there are rooms largely for royal purposes. At the same time, the monarchy faced no comparable constitutional change. Royal visits became more informal, and there was a conscious effort to link royalty with the younger generation.

Neither the Blair nor the Brown governments saw any more significant developments, but the different stance of monarchy was readily apparent in 2010 when an election led to no majority. The Crown was kept informed of the coalition negotiations between Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats, but did not play a role in a process controlled by the politicians. The monarchy validated the outcome, rather than determining, or even influencing it.

So also with successive decisions to hold referenda. Indeed, David Cameron, Conservative Prime Minister from 2010 to 2016, was criticised for revealing the Queen’s pleasure when the 2014 Scottish referendum saw a clear majority of Scots who voted to reject independence. This represented her support for the maintenance of the United Kingdom, and her essential conservatism. Earlier, she had urged voters to think with care which was a way to urge them not to vote for independence. The attitude of the Crown to the Brexit referendum, and to the subsequent bitter constitutional impasse and political division that lasted until a general election in December 2019 delivered a verdict, was more successfully kept private. This was also the case with her view on Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. The Queen continued to hold a weekly meeting with the Prime Minister and to read daily red boxes of Cabinet papers.

Meanwhile, the issue of the succession was increasingly coming to the fore, a situation highlighted by her refusal to abdicate (unlike the example of the Dutch monarchy) and to allow the grounding of a new reign before it aged. Moreover, the length of the reign ensured that the Queen was still on the throne when rows over son Andrew and grandson Harry came to the fore. Whereas Pope Benedict XVI provided the example of a papal resignation in 2013, the first to do so on his own initiative since Celestine V in 1294 (Gregory XII did so in 1415 to end a schism), there was no abdication for Elizabeth. Nor was there need for a regency, although the 1947 Regency Act established a system of Counsellors of State to act when the monarch was abroad or ill.

Great affection and admiration for the Queen could not end discussion about the future, a situation encouraged in 2021 when the death of Prince Philip highlighted public sympathy, but also awareness of her age and frailty. In 2022, there was an increasing withdrawal from public duties, although the Queen opened the new Elizabeth underground line in London. Parliament was opened by the 73-year-old Prince Charles sitting on the consort’s throne, and, facing ‘episodic mobility problems’ which had become increasingly serious, the Queen did not attend the garden parties celebrating the Platinum Jubilee, which, instead, were hosted by other members of the royal family. Nor did she take the royal Salute at the Trooping the Colour in 2022, marking the start of national celebrations for her Platinum Jubilee, although as an instructive underlining of her preferences she was given a tour of the Chelsea Flower Show in a buggy that belongs to the royal household. The Queen took a lively interest, speaking to designers and plant experts, showing her knowledge of clematis. Yet, her withdrawal from public duties appeared increasingly apparent prior to her death on September 8, 2022, two days after a clearly frail monarch had appointed Liz Truss as Prime Minister.

She died with the love of her subjects and with the respect and admiration of the whole world.

Reflections on the Coronation: ‘While dynasties have fallen all around us, the British Throne stands more securely than ever before. If there had been any doubt it would have been dispelled by the enthusiastic multitudes who had waited in the streets for hours … One reason for this astonishing vitality of the British Monarchy is the manner in which the Crown, while cherishing all that is of value to tradition, has ever adjusted itself to changing circumstances… thanks to scientific developments… she was seen by millions outside the Abbey as clearly as if they had been her privileged guests within…. The oath itself is a compact between Sovereign and people with its roots seen in English history… But the most important change that has taken place with the centuries, and the one that best explains why the British Throne has survived the fall of so many others, is the recognition by successive rulers, and by none more than by her Majesty’s father [George VI] and grandfather [Edward VII] – that to reign means to serve.’ Daily Telegraph, June3, 1953.

16 thoughts on “The Queen: Service with Honour

  • lbloveday says:

    It’s reported in The Herald Sun of King Charles that “The 73-year-old wants to sort out his relationship with Prince Harry”.
    I’d suggest publishing the results of a DNA test to prove whether Prince Harry has royal blood, and if not revoke his title.

    • rosross says:


      That is not how the aristocracy works. Harry is Charles’s son and that will not change.

      However if Ginge and Whinge keep doing what they are doing, Charles will ensure they are excluded from the family and stripped of any titles I suspect. I would guess that conversation was had with Harry at Balmoral.

    • Brian Boru says:

      I have considered your comment about DNA testing. I find it most inappropriate at this time even though I am no lover of the Queen’s family.
      I know that these comments are now stale and probably won’t be read much but I I can not let this pass.
      Sometimes we spend too much time on these forums and we lose sight of the need for respect when we are in pursuit of our objectives.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    In the eleventh year of my age, temporarily at a local primary school in England, the headmistress came into the classroom to say that ‘our dear King George the Sixth has died’. She was in tears over his death. She then informed us that we were had now all magically become ‘Young New Elizabethans’ because the Princess Elizabeth was now our Queen and she would rule over a future full of promise for us, just as the first Queen Elizabeth had done. In that year leading to the Coronation I held fast to my childish sense of new purpose as a Young New Elizabethan in such a sceptered isle, with its Royal Throne. I sang about feet in ancient times that walked upon England’s mountains green as I gathered fossils in the Malvern Hills, sought frogspawn in the ponds on nature walks, and received an education in the English countryside. In the medieval church where my parents had been married before coming to Australia in 1946 I saw through the incense smoke of the High Church of England, in the stained-glass window, that holy lamb of God that was in the song. No spear, bow or chariot of fire, although I looked for them too.

    Now, in the eightieth year of my age, that young Queen Elizabeth has grown old and died and I am old myself. The changes during her reign are almost unfathomable even to those who have lived through them, but her duty and her care for the Commonwealth of Nations she nurtured are a signal legacy of those changes and of the power of a Monarch to garner willing adherence, to unify by presence alone.

    Watching on TV, I saw King Charles the Third hand-holding the outstretched hands of the crowd lined up to see him make his entrance into Buckingham Palace, where one woman impulsively kissed his hand, another, quickly, his face. And that is Monarchy. It is the human face of family, of place and community, it is human membership of a whole, a gestalt to which all can lay claim. Its nature is eternal, and there is little else in this frayed world of belonging that can lay claim to that. Which is why Monarchies survive.

  • garryevans41 says:

    The Australian Football League announced it will not observe a minute of silence to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth II during the remaining matches of its AFLW Indigenous Round.
    The sports body thought it was best to not hold the minute of silence as the death of the Queen was a sensitive topic considering it is the AFLW Indigenous Round.
    Is this the “voice” of recognition and reconciliation, our Prime Minister is proposing?

    • Brian Boru says:

      Garry; as an irreverent republican who only supports the Monarchy because it works for us I could tolerate the lack of a minutes silence for our late Queen.
      I must however acknowledge how well she kept her promise to serve us as she said (whether her life be short or long).
      What I cannot tolerate though is the craven respect given to aboriginal elders which extends therefore to rapists and pedophiles. Nor can I tolerate the thought of an apartheid like racist Voice which would be the antitheses of the egalitarian values most Australians hold.
      That is why whenever I hear that “acknowledgement” I say aloud “I don’t agree”. I encourage others, who do not wish to acquiesce to this racism, to do the same.
      Apologies for this repeat of a comment.

      • PeterPetrum says:

        Ah, Brian, at last someone I can agree with on the “acknowledgement”. It drives me crazy and the fact that we also now get it when a Qantas plane lands is exquisitely annoying. I am sure that our ancient aboriginal inhabitants of this fine land did all they could to ensure that they survived in an often hostile environment, but one must wonder at what stage of development they would now be at if the British had not arrived here. Or would they have existed at all if the Chinese, who apparently discovered, but never colonised, the country, had done so.

        So like you, I will in future say, out loud, “I do not agree”. Thank you

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    Visiting the Elizabeth McArthur Bella Vista farm before it was opened to the public, I had the fortune to hear the caretakers story. He has fought in WW 2 and remained in the army reserve. When Elizabeth Regina visited Sydney in ’53 he was called up and sent to barracks to be kitted out and issued with live ammunition and an Owen gun. The crowds were overwhelming and there was nothing for the Royals to fear. The troops were placed in strategic points for her protection. He saw this as a duty to protect the Monarch and held it as a highlight of his life.
    Looking at the human race today, but for her support of the Commonwealth and its offshoots, we could be looking at a South American or African post colonial experience for over a billion English speakers.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Thanks too, Jeremy Black, for your excellent chronological appraisal of Her Majesty’s reign.

  • Stephen Due says:

    The Queen was Head of the Commonwealth, which includes former British colonies not only in North America, Africa, Asia, and Australasia but also in the Subcontinent. She was Head of State of fifteen of the member nations. The Commonwealth occupies about a fifth of the total land area of the globe. The inclusion of India, with its vast population, brings the tally for the Commonwealth to abour 2.5 billion people.
    As Head of the Commonwealth, the Queen represented the unique civilising influence of Britain around the globe. It is fashionable to deride and deplore colonialism. Neveretheless, the legacy of British rule ought to be seen in a positive light. We can add the United States, not a member of the Commonwealth, to get an even better idea of the vast scope of this benign influence, which includes the whole of what is known today as the ‘English Speaking World’.
    Whether King Charles will have the same sense of his Commonwealth role, and its importance globally, remains to be seen.

  • Daffy says:

    The sheer bastardry of the AFL! So they are concerned that the ‘indigenous’ (those born here?) players will be offended. Yet I’ve noticed that almost all Aboriginal Australians happily partake of the benefits resulting from the British settlement of Australia. Perhaps some would wish to relinquish them?

  • Paul W says:

    Is AFL not a creation of the white man?

  • Lewis P Buckingham says:

    The following article speaks of the late Queen’s sense of courtesy in the face of comedy pranks in the Queen’s Guard.
    Moving down, the article becomes uplifting and enlightening amongst the general sombre tenor of todays prewritten press obituaries.

  • Searcher says:

    A great article, Jeremy Black.

  • norsaint says:

    Great to see the writer was an afficionado of Private Eye magazine, which up until about 1987, was the best publication in the English speaking world. Unfortunately editor Richard Ingrams and the late great Auberon Waugh both left at about the same time and the mag has been a sad shadow of itself ever since.

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