The late Queen

Over the weekend after her death, I was asked to record what I knew of the Queen for the Spanish newspaper, ABC. It has now been published in an abbreviated form in the main paper and in full online.

https://www.abc.es/internacional/sir-charles-suamarez-smith-gran-fortaleza-isabel-20220919175051-nt.html

Since I assume that not all my readers know Spanish, I attach the text in its original form. Many people have repeated a version of my views, possibly ad nauseam, but I am reproducing it as a minor document of the last ten days:-

HM THE QUEEN

I belong to a generation which was brought up to be very royalist.   I was born in May 1954, a year after the Coronation.   Every Christmas, we would stand round the television set and watch her annual Christmas broadcast, delivered in those days in a much more cut-glass accent than her accent later (this was true of everyone as the idea of standard English pronunciation disappeared in favour of regional accents).  At the end of my first visit to the cinema to see Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’ in 1963, we stood at the end of the performance to sing the National Anthem.   My father had worked for the British civil service [actually, the Indian Civil Service, but it seemed too complicated to have to explain this] and was instinctively deferential, born with a strong sense of hierarchical order, with the Queen very definitely at the top and everyone else a long way below.   Although he adapted to a more democratic social order after the Second World War, as indeed she did, he retained certain attitudes to class and a belief in civic ceremony which were universal in Britain before the Second World War.

Attitudes to the monarchy began to change during the 1960s, along with so much else, but the Queen remained very much a representative of her generation:  she had served in the war;  she had a strong sense of national duty;  she liked to listen to what she probably still called the wireless;  she is said to have had some of the parsimony of those who had endured rationing, turning off the lights in Buckingham Palace to save money.   She did not believe in the expression of public emotion, famously staying up in Scotland following the death of Princess Diana, not realising that by August 1997, the British had given up on the stiff upper lip and were piling flowers outside the gates of Buckingham Palace.   I have a faint suspicion that she might have regarded the universal expression of public emotion following her death as a little bit over-blown, since she had already put everything in good order for her successor and was probably looking forward to joining her husband in another place.   She had survived just long enough to do her duty in welcoming a new Prime Minister and then may have felt — quite legitimately — that she had had enough.

I met her a few times, but she was not someone it was easy to know.   That was her great strength.   She was interested in everyone equally, but treated everyone all on the same level, although I had a sense that she was able to be more friendly to the guests she invited to stay for the weekend at Windsor Castle.   

She came to open the new Wing of the National Portrait Gallery in May 2000.   The Duke of Edinburgh was a bit grumpy, but I have never heard anyone say that of her.   She was always immaculately professional, totally able to control her emotions, although I guess she was able to joke with the Duke about the day’s events over a private supper.

When I was Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy, I was expected to see her every year with the President, although it turned out to be more like every other year.   The first time I went, I was told by her Private Secretary that she would be interested in our constitutional reforms, but she turned out to be deeply and passionately interested – and surprisingly well informed – about the difficulties we had had in organising an exhibition of French art from Russian museums.   She had read about it, but she wanted to know the details, including the gossip.  

I always had a sense of someone who was exceptionally well informed, reading the newspapers in depth every morning over her breakfast, just as carefully as the papers she would have been given in red boxes to prepare her for the day’s meetings.   Her room was austere.   I don’t think she would have wanted it modernised.   There was a sense of systematic order.   After exactly half an hour, it was clear that the time had come to leave — I never figured out how it was done.   Everything ran like clockwork, punctilious to the end.

The only time I saw just a glimmer of her real personality below the surface was when we went to present her with four drawings which had been done by painters of the Royal Academy to mark her Diamond Jubilee.   One was of a group of Kenyan birds, Birds at Ngong, by the artist, Humphrey Ocean.   The President of the Royal Academy told her that she would no doubt recognise and be able to identify them.   She raised her eyebrow just a touch to indicate that this was unlikely given the style in which they had been painted.   But I could have imagined the faint suggestion of humour.

It is clear now that everyone recognised her extraordinary sense of devotion to public duty for 70 years, an exceptionally long reign, even longer than that of Queen Victoria.   People admired her for her sense of order, the amazing number of public occasions she attended, travelling round the world tirelessly, totally devoted to the nation and the Commonwealth.   Much of it must have been very boring, endlessly ceremonial.   But she stuck at it for the full seventy years, never exhibiting a trace of boredom right up to the end when she saw out Boris Johnson and welcomed Liz Truss.   Every Prime Minister has said that she was an unexpected source of good advice, standing above the political fray and no doubt shrewd and sensible in her views and quietly independent minded. 

Everyone already misses what she represented because she was a symbol of such extraordinary continuity, able to combine a belief in tradition with a recognition that the world had changed.   It was this combination of a deep sense of tradition and considerable flexibility in accepting change that made her monarchy so stable.

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