Allan Massie: The Queen’s majestic achievement

The Queen after her coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey in 1953. Picture: PA
The Queen after her coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey in 1953. Picture: PA
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AS the Queen becomes our longest-reigning monarch, Allan Massie pays tribute

Today the Queen has reigned longer than her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria and so becomes the longest-reigning crowned British monarch. (I say “crowned” because it will be a few more months before she surpasses James VIII & III who, in the opinion of Jacobites, reigned from 1701 to 1766). The span of history is fascinating. Queen Elizabeth’s first Prime Minister was Winston Churchill who was born in 1874 and held a commission from Queen Victoria in a regiment of Hussars. She had been Queen for 14 years when her present Prime Minister, David Cameron, was born in 1966, a year after Churchill’s death. There have been ten other Prime Ministers between Churchill and Cameron.

Though there is no organised Republican movement in the United Kingdom, there is republican feeling, principally because for some the survival of the monarchy in a democratic age seems an anomaly. Yet if it is an anomaly, it is one most of us live happily with. The Queen herself is perhaps admired, even revered, rather than popular, partly because she has never set out to win popularity. She has been content to do her duty as she perceives it, and that duty is one of service. She has no political power, but it would be wrong to say she has no authority. Her authority derives from the respect in which she is held. Her achievement has been to accept change while remaining the same.

The Government is still in name Her Majesty’s Government, and Prime Ministers receive the seals of office from the Queen, but some of the political powers she inherited have been graciously surrendered. Chief among these is the power to choose the Prime Minister. This was last exercised in 1963 when, acting on the advice she received, she invited Sir Alec Douglas-Home (or the Earl of Home as he still was) to form a Government. Since then, whenever a Prime Minister has resigned between elections, as Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair did, she has waited for the party in power to elect a new leader. Even in 2010 when the general election gave no party a Commons majority, she waited for negotiations between party leaders to be concluded before receiving Gordon Brown’s resignation and accepting David Cameron as Prime Minister. In the crisis of 1931 her grandfather George V had taken an active role, encouraging the Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to form a coalition or National Government; one can’t imagine such intervention from the Queen. So far as we know, she has never influenced ministerial appointments, though in 1945 her father George VI reputedly advised Clement Attlee to make Ernest Bevin Foreign Secretary and Hugh Dalton Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than the other way round. The monarchy survives by steering clear of politics and eschewing any suggestion of partisanship.

Last year’s Scottish referendum was a case in point. It was natural for many Unionists to assume that the Queen did not wish to see the break-up of the Union, but she remained studiously neutral. Her only intervention was to say in an off-the-cuff comment that she was sure the Scottish People would think very carefully about how they cast their vote. It was very wrong – indeed stupid and impertinent – of David Cameron to claim that the Queen had “purred” in a telephone conversation after the result was known. In contrast, yesterday’s Scotsman reported that Nicola Sturgeon and her husband Peter Murrell were the Queen’s guests at Balmoral, just as they should be.

The value of the monarchy is first of all symbolic; it represents continuity. The Queen’s devotion to the Commonwealth and the idea of the Commonwealth is well-known; it is also an expression of hostility to racism. At the same time she has accepted and never questioned the lease of sovereignty to the European Union. She has recognised the truth of the oft-quoted lines from Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard: “Things will have to change if we want them to remain the same.” The Royal Family itself has changed. Marriages are no longer arranged, and its members, with the Queen’s permission or encouragement, marry for love like the rest of us, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, like the rest of us.

In rapidly changing times the monarchy also represents stability. Apparently undemocratic, it actually helps to guarantee democracy because the Head of State is above or beyond politics. It is no accident that so many of the European democracies which function most comfortably are monarchies: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands for example. The monarchy represents us all. The Head of State belongs to us all, not to one political party. One example of this in action was the Queen’s State visit to the Republic of Ireland, a visit of reconciliation, healing an old wound. It was comparable to George IV’s coming to Edinburgh – “the King’s Jaunt”, choreographed by Sir Walter Scott.

The Queen has presided over – orchestrated might be a better word – the development of the Social Monarchy. There is scarcely a single charity or organisation in the land that doesn’t have – or seek to have – a royal patron. Enterprises like the Duke of Edinburgh’s awards scheme and the Duke of Rothesay’s Prince’s Trust have given innumerable young people opportunities they would not otherwise have enjoyed.

In his autobiography John Buchan told of how a shepherd’s wife from Tweeddale had tramped miles to take part in celebrations of George V’s Silver Jubilee, When asked why she had made the effort, she replied: “We maun a’ boo tae the buss that bields us”. We live in an age that rejects or distrusts such deference, and yet the shepherd’s wife was right. The monarchy binds past, present and future together. The great Scots poet of the Renaissance William Dunbar wrote of “service and luve aboif all uthir thing”. For more than 63 years now, the Queen has lived and acted in obedience to these words. We are fortunate to have had her. Long may she reign over us, God save the Queen. And if you don’t believe in God, then at least raise a glass and drink a health unto Her Majesty.