As the UK & many other countries around the world pause to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee, Former Diplomatic Editor of The Times Michael Binyon says it is Her Majesty’s engagement with the outside world that underlines the breadth and success of her long reign as head of state
She has reigned longer than any other monarch in more than a thousand years of British history. No other head of state today is as well travelled, as politically experienced or as astute as Queen Elizabeth II. At the age of 96 and now celebrating 70 years on the throne, the Queen is still meeting diplomats accredited to London, even if the meetings are nowadays shorter and usually conducted remotely. The street parties, rejoicing and a nationwide holiday to celebrate her reign will lighten up not only Britain in these difficult times; the celebrations will also be shared in the 54 nations of the Commonwealth, of which she remains the head, and in the many other countries around the world that she has visited.
It is estimated that about two billion people, almost a third of the global population, have seen the Queen at some stage during her lifetime. For two generations of Britons, she has been the embodiment of the nation, the figurehead of British democracy and a symbol of continuity in an increasingly turbulent world. Four in five of all Britons can remember no other monarch. Those who can still look back to 1952 would see a country unrecognisable today – one in which murderers were all hanged, children were often caned in school and homosexuals were routinely imprisoned. When she came to the throne, the Muslim population of Britain could be numbered in thousands; now it is more than 3.3 million. The cabinet then contained few women and no ethnic minorities; now both are well represented, and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer who is of Indian descent, may one day become Britain’s prime minister.
Her wit – dry and sometimes quite pointed – is renowned, as is her talent for mimicry. What other monarch would have agreed to take part in a James Bond spoof before the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London?
Although she has remained politically neutral and has never expressed her personal views on issues of state, the Queen has been closely involved with the government of Britain – and indeed, in former days, the government of dozens of countries abroad which were once British colonies. She has given royal assent to more than 3,500 acts of Parliament, and has performed the ceremonial opening of Parliament every year since 1952, except two years when she was pregnant and this year when Prince Charles stood in for her. She admits that she now finds moving around rather difficult. Her weekly audiences with more than a dozen prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to Boris Johnson, have given her an insight and understanding of politics and historical perspective that are unrivalled.
She has also taken a keen interest in foreign affairs. As head of the Commonwealth, a role she takes very seriously, she has travelled frequently to Africa and the Caribbean to celebrate the independence of former British colonies and forged many friendships with African leaders. Altogether she has made more than 270 visits overseas. These included an important post-war visit of reconciliation to Germany, a pioneering visit to post-communist Russia, the first visit for more than a century to the Republic of Ireland, frequent visits to the United States as well as 22 to Canada, 16 to Australia and dozens of others to more than 100 countries. She has met every US president except Lyndon Johnson and became particularly fond of Barrack and Michelle Obama. Perhaps no friendship was as deep and politically important as that with Nelson Mandela, the late South African president and only foreign leader who called her just “Elizabeth” and was able to telephone her at any time of the day.
Perhaps more than any other public cause, the Commonwealth is one where the Queen’s mind and emotions have been most engaged. Had she not persisted in upholding the institution when Britain’s political focus moved more to Europe or when Britain found itself isolated in opposing sanctions on apartheid South Africa, the organisation might long ago have dissolved amid arguments of differing interests.
Nevertheless, these ties are likely to weaken after her death. Both Prince Charles and his son Prince William have expressed a wish to make the Commonwealth a focus. But already the links are weakening. One by one, countries where the Queen remained head of state have broken that constitutional link. Australia has already held a referendum on becoming a republic and is unlikely to accept Prince Charles as its next head of state. The same is true of Canada, Jamaica and most small Caribbean islands where the Queen is still constitutionally head of state. Respect for the Queen is still strong, but this is largely now because of her age and personal influence; when her grandson, the Duke of Cambridge, and his wife recently toured the Caribbean it was clear that the younger generation has far less attachment to the British monarchy.
Although she has not undertaken an overseas tour since 2015, and will not do so again, she still takes an interest in diplomatic protocol, in the work of foreign ambassadors accredited to London and in the standing of Britain in the world. The Queen’s annual diplomatic reception for ambassadors is an important event, and it is considered impolite for an ambassador not to attend.
There can be lighter moments, however. When German ambassador to London, Karl-Gunther von Hase (1970-77), prepared to present his credentials to the Queen, a state coach was sent to collect him, as traditionally happens, and the Queen asked that her Oldenburg greys should pull it. No coach arrived: one of the horses had kicked an axle and broken it. After a lot of scurrying around, a replacement coach was found. Von Hase arrived late for the ceremony and apologised. “Yes,” the Queen replied dryly. “I hear that one of my German horses has been rather naughty.”
When he (Prince Charles) becomes King, he will reign in a different way – more outspoken, less formal and more involved in the challenges of climate change, multicultural Britain and changing social patterns.
Occasional documentaries allowed the odd look into her private quarters or caught her in unguarded exchanges. There was always a sharp mind at work, enriched by a huge amount of common sense and a regard for plain speaking. The Queen knows that it is important for her to show herself to the public; but she always knows that the “mystery” of monarchy needs to be protected, and that too much press exposure would undermine the institution. Monarchy does not work as a showbiz spectacle. The jubilee celebrations will of course focus on her. But at 96, she is unlikely to take an active role, go on walkabouts or engage in person with her subjects.
Since the death last year of Prince Philip, for so long the other pillar of the monarchy, the Queen has withdrawn from much public life. But Britain has cherished the past glimpses into the Queen’s human responses. Never is she as animated as when one of her horses romps home in a race or smile as broadly as when she is admiring a particularly fine young filly. Her wit – dry and sometimes quite pointed – is renowned, as is her talent for mimicry. What other monarch would have agreed to take part in a James Bond spoof before the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London?
Britain has been profoundly influenced by her reign. Prince Charles has served a long apprenticeship, and will soon have to grapple with the challenge of change, renewal and different expectations of what the monarch’s role should be. Her shoes will be difficult to fill. When he becomes King, he will reign in a different way – more outspoken, less formal and more involved in the challenges of climate change, multicultural Britain and changing social patterns. He will surely have learnt the lessons of the past 70 years. But the world, and the diplomatic community, will have to get used to a rather different head of state in Britain.