Accession Day. In 1952, it was a time for mourning a beloved father. We can only guess the weight of the emotional burden that unexpectedly befell the young Princess Elizabeth when the King died on February 6 that year.
While it was a day to celebrate the start of a new reign, we should never forget that, for the Queen, it is also a day of pain and bereavement.
Seventy years later, it marks the start of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee and is a time for looking back with gratitude for a reign that’s still going strong, and for 70 years of memories — our own and those we have inherited.
We shouldn’t hold back: monarchy either lives in the hearts and experiences of ordinary British people, or it doesn’t really live at all.
We can only guess the weight of the emotional burden that unexpectedly befell the young Princess Elizabeth when the King died
My first glimpse of the Queen was through a rainy limousine window in a wintry Scottish town, where our school was gamely trying to line a street with loyal, smiling faces. It was two thrills in one: we got to see the Queen and we skipped double maths.
Later I overheard the headmaster excitedly re-living the experience for the benefit of the staff-room: ‘…and when she looked at me it was as if she was saying, “How lovely to see you here!” ’
Even at the tender age of nine, it occurred to me that if the Queen really had been glad to see him, she must indeed be a person of extraordinary grace and stamina.
I had already learned an important lesson about Her Majesty: just a fleeting sense of her presence could do wonders for morale. Our notoriously savage headmaster was a ray of sunshine for several hours following his close encounter with the sovereign — proving that you should never discount the soft power of royalty.
Like the headmaster, my parents served in the Armed Forces of the Queen’s father during World War II. Fighting for King and country was not the abstract idea it might seem today. It was a real thing.
Years later, I absorbed this history as part of my growing up. To my impressionable mind, it somehow made the Queen an honorary member of our family. After all, she was about the same age as my mum and they had both been in the Army. And, conclusively, they even had the same hairstyle.
Had she lived to see it, my mother would have been especially proud when, 23 years later, I was appointed equerry to the Queen’s glamorous daughter-in-law and future Queen-consort, Princess Diana.
Just a fleeting sense of Her Majesty’s presence can do wonders for morale
The monarchy had moved on a bit by then, and not entirely for the better: we were on the brink of the traumatic years of family upheaval that culminated in the notorious annus horribilis of 1992.
The Windsors were now just more celebrity gossip and diary fodder in mass circulation newspapers. It marked a dangerous fall in public respect. Even as I arrived at the palace, I knew from rumours that Charles and Diana’s marriage might not be the real-life fairytale we had all been sold.
It wasn’t long before I had a chance to update my childhood impressions of the Queen — and get a valuable insight into my new boss. There was a diary planning meeting, a set-piece event during which the prince and princess and their staffs went through the tortuous process of deciding the Waleses’ official engagements for the next half-year.
There could be some tense moments, like when the prince was asked to take on a non-negotiable invitation he would much rather decline. Cue much respectful persuasion from his private secretary, to no avail.
I knew from rumours that Charles and Diana’s marriage might not be the real-life fairytale we had all been sold
It was Diana, now growing restless with the delay, who broke the stalemate. ‘Why don’t you ask your mother to do it?’ she asked.
There was a collective gasp at this unprecedented break with convention. Then she shocked the assembled bureaucrat courtiers even more. ‘You could phone her,’ continued Diana. ‘Use the phone on your desk.’
This was revolutionary. Communication of this kind should be through established channels with lots of leisurely paperwork. Yet, after only a slight pause, the prince rose from his seat, crossed to his desk and lifted the phone. In minutes, he was speaking to the Queen, and in a minute more she had agreed to do the engagement in his place.
As the prince returned to his seat, his wife flashed everybody a Diana look that said: ‘See! It takes a woman to get things done around here!’
No, I thought to myself. Make that two women.
That small incident was typical of many stories in palace folklore. Take, for example, the moment when the Queen turned what could have been a diplomatic fiasco into a breakthrough for the birth of the new South Africa.
It was 1991, and the heads of government meeting of the Queen’s beloved Commonwealth was being held in Harare, Zimbabwe. Guests arrived in a succession of limousines and joined the Queen for a pre-dinner reception.
But then the unthinkable happened: an uninvited guest rolled up to the door of State House. Out of the black Mercedes stepped the leader of the African National Congress, the recently released prisoner of Robben Island, Nelson Mandela himself.
With the world’s Press watching, any suggestion of surprise or hesitation might have been mistaken for a snub. It could have been a disaster.
The Queen invited the recently-released Nelson Mandela to a Commonwealth leaders’ summit in 1991
But the Queen didn’t miss a beat, welcoming her extra guest as her officials swiftly reorganised the dinner seating plan.
Pragmatism matched with courtesy and more than a touch of cool. As I learned, these are among the Queen’s defining qualities.
I saw more of her practical approach when I accompanied Prince Charles to the Remembrance Day service in Hong Kong, when it was still a British Crown Colony. Since I would be handing the prince his wreath to lay on the Cenotaph, I took a close interest in an animated discussion between protocol officials.
The Hong Kong team expected the Governor, as the Queen’s representative, to lay the first wreath; but we visitors maintained that, since the Queen’s heir was present, he should take precedence.
Protocol disagreements can be tense. The debate swung back and forth for what seemed a very long time. Finally, somebody had the bright idea of contacting the Queen personally to get her ruling on the matter. The decision came straight back: the Governor goes first.
The point to note is that the Queen’s unstuffy approach to problems — and life in general — is the opposite of how monarchs are assumed to think. In some palace offices there is a temptation to over-complicate simple issues. By contrast, the Queen’s priorities are refreshingly clear: recognise what is required and then get on with it, without the need for coaxing, histrionics or fuss.
Add to this philosophy an eye that famously misses no detail and a legendary palace intelligence network, and you have the keys to an extraordinarily effective monarchy. It’s an effectiveness carried so lightly that it might be missed altogether amid today’s taste for overwrought communications. But underestimate it at your peril.
Now imagine the monarchy without her. The more you think about it, the more disturbing it feels. Like a betrayal. Yet it’s an inevitability that only grows closer. She is irreplaceable but her successors are already lined up, three generations ahead.
Although Elizabeth will one day leave us, the Windsors will not. They are our continuing inheritance. How does that feel?
Although Elizabeth will one day leave us, the Windsors will not. They are our continuing inheritance. How does that feel?
Reassuring, I suppose, but with certain distinct misgivings. The Queen’s reign continues to be a masterclass in feminine power — sometimes subtle, sometimes displayed for effect.
Having ascended the throne as a brave and vulnerable young princess, it’s likely she will be followed by a succession of elderly men.
Nothing wrong with that, of course. Age and wisdom go together (usually) so maybe it’s time for some old, wise kings.
Like it or not, though, we live in an image-conscious age. The Windsors themselves obviously recognise this — just look at the way the royal PR budget has soared over recent years. They may claim not to care about popularity, but they do need broad support from all generations.
Especially from the young, who will be subsidising the monarchy for the rest of their lives. To that generation, a monarch near their own age, preferably with a photogenic family and dependable private life, would be someone to invest in for the long haul.
Luckily for Buckingham Palace, the Cambridges have proved they have the charisma of William’s mother, the public service ethos of his grandmother and the common sense that is just the kind of wisdom the Windsors need. Which only reminds us that Prince Andrew has been banished and Prince Harry has self-exiled.
But this still leaves us with a future king whose charity, The Prince’s Foundation, is under investigation and a future queen-consort indelibly implicated in the tragedy of Princess Diana. The failings and frailties of the Queen’s family only make her example shine brighter. The Platinum Jubilee lets us celebrate that example. It also lets us ask why we have a queen in the first place. Why not a president?
The Cambridges have the common sense that is just the kind of wisdom the Windsors need. Which only reminds us that Prince Andrew has been banished and Prince Harry has self-exiled
The answer doesn’t need a long lecture on the theory and practice of constitutional monarchy. We only need to point to a picture of the Queen. This is the British state in human form, the living, breathing focus and pathway for official patriotic sentiment. Hence God Save the Queen, not God Bless Britain.
Churchill described the British system as ‘a crowned republic’: ‘In our island, by trial and error, and by perseverance across the centuries, we have found a very good plan. Here it is. The Queen can do no wrong but advisers can be changed as often as the people like to use their right for that purpose.’
The Queen can do no wrong. That’s a reassuring default position but, of course, our Queen has improved on it immeasurably over a lifetime of service. Her achievements outstrip the efforts of the most industrious historians.
Consistently they perceive in the Queen a set of qualities which reassuringly confirm a humanity to which we can feel connected, and a willingness to sacrifice which earns our loyalty.
Adjectives such as humorous, pragmatic, modest, straightforward and unstuffy aren’t awarded lightly; they are earned through years of dedicated service, the bedrock of a reputation few elected leaders could match.
Churchill described the British system as ‘a crowned republic’: ‘In our island, by trial and error, and by perseverance across the centuries, we have found a very good plan
The pattern for her successors could not be clearer. Whatever storms may blow, whatever passions may rage, whatever shocks rock the foundations of Britain — a confident, hard-working monarchy sends a reassuring message of calm and continuity.
By acting only on the advice of elected ministers — and resisting the temptation to pursue the mirage of fashionable relevance — it preserves its unifying legitimacy. And by honouring excellence, service and duty, it encourages the rest of us to do more and better with what we have.
By all these measures, the Queen has set an example that may never be equalled, only followed by future generations as best they can. As we have seen, from the tragically early death of her father, to the annus horribilis and beyond, she has — metaphorically and literally — squared her shoulders, set her jaw and uncomplainingly met every test fate has sent her.
Perhaps that steadfastness can be traced to an unworldly strength the Queen has never made a secret. She made it especially plain when, aged just 21, she famously committed her life to the service of her people.
‘God help me to make good my vow.’
Who could doubt that her prayer has been answered in full measure? Now is a time for prayers of thanks for her lifetime of service. Let’s pray, too, that if there must be another Accession Day, it keeps us waiting many years yet.
Patrick Jephson was equerry and private secretary to HRH The Princess of Wales from 1988 to 1996.