This weekend the nation celebrates the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Actually she became Queen on the night of 6th February, 1952 so the 60th anniversary was back in February, but no doubt wisely, the government decided that we would have an extra bank holiday and celebrate the anniversary in early June, which coincides more with her Coronation, except that was in 1953. Back then they decided to take the auguries and plan for the date with the best likely weather. In true British tradition the day of her Coronation, the 2nd June 1953, was cold and wet.
Last week my wife and I had lunch with Robert Lacey, the royal biographer, who has cashed in on the jubilee with A Brief Life of Her Majesty cobbled together from previous volumes but updated with some thoughts on the Diana episode and illustrated with some nice photographs. Robert explained that the derivation of Jubilee is the Judaic tradition of seven seven-year cycles followed by a fallow year, the 50th in which celebrations were held.[i]The word is supposed to come from the Hebrew word yobel, meaning ram, because a ram’s horn was sounded to mark the occasion. However, there are alternative etymological derivations and jubilare in Latin means to shout from which we get jubilant and jubilation.
In the Catholic church Pope Boniface VIII convoked a holy year in 1300 and after that jubilees have been celebrated every 25 or 50 years and indeed from time to time other jubilees have been added as needed though such jubilees were more in the character of pilgrimages to Rome.
George III was the first king to celebrate a Golden Jubilee in 1809 but it was not a happy time for him as he suffered from porphyria and his erratic behaviour was usually interpreted as mental illness. He died after 59 years and 96 days on the throne so fell nine months short of the first Diamond Jubilee of a British monarch. That privilege fell to his granddaughter, Queen Victoria who reached the milestone in 1897. By this time she was the subject of great popularity, which had not always been the case. Moving cameras had only been developed a couple of years before so her Jubilee is one of the very first public events to have been recorded on cine film.
The British monarchy is probably the foremost institution of its kind in the world. The Queen is Monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and also Sovereign to fifteen other countries ranging in size from Australia and Canada to Antigua and the tiny Tuvalu. Thus she reigns over more than 100 million people. But through her position as Head of the Commonwealth with its 54 member countries she touches more than 2 billion people, nearly a third of mankind.
The monarchy has evolved through just about every condition of monarchy to its present constitutional state. Macaulay defined this in his History of England as “According to the pure idea of constitutional monarchy, the prince reigns, and does not govern; and constitutional royalty, as it now exists in England (sic), comes nearer than in any country to the pure idea.” While many people around the world, particularly those who have thrown off monarchy, sometimes violently, see it as outmoded and even irrelevant, paradoxically it is the preferred constitutional system in countries that are known to be industrially and economically advanced, egalitarian, decidedly democratic and socially progressive such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
Indeed monarchists, and I count myself as one, are grateful that we don’t have to go through the excruciating pain of electing not only a Head of Government on a regular basis, but also a Head of State. In such elections enormous damage is potentially done to national self-esteem and international prestige as the Head of State is pilloried by his opponents and so, by implication, is the country.
This week the avowedly republican newspaper The Sunday Times, owned by the avowed republican Rupert Murdoch, has a beautifully illustrated colour supplement dedicated to the Queen and her family including a feature by the formerly avowed republican Rod Liddle in which he confesses to a change of heart triggered by the appointment of Baroness Ashton to the post of EU High Representative For Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. It was then he realised that if we ever got rid of the monarch, it would be someone like Ashton who would replace her; someone with no qualifications whatsoever for her job but who owes it to political patronage. In the avowedly republican newspaper, The Economist, its political columnist Bagehot grudgingly acknowledged the supreme skills of The Queen and has had to put away his republican cause at least for a generation.
It is no doubt important in this debate to consider the character of the monarch and in this respect the British are indeed fortunate. Elizabeth was not born to be Queen, that was going to be her Uncle David, and then, if he had any, his progeny. But at the age of ten she realised that she would be Queen and on gaining her maturity in 1947 pledged herself to serve her people for her whole life whether it was long or short. Well, it has been long and given her mother’s longevity it may go on for some time yet. Her approval rating among the people is 70%, the net between those who think she’s doing a good job and those who don’t. Our political leaders do not even get half of that.
Her Majesty has many qualities but just to give one example Robert Lacey quotes former Foreign Secretary, Lord Owen who says “When it comes to race Queen Elizabeth is colour blind”. We rarely know what her opinions are but at the height of the apartheid crisis she went against her prime minister, Margaret Thatcher’s advice and attended a Commonwealth conference on the subject. Later she entertained Nelson Mandela at Buckingham Palace and was not put out by his thank you letter addressed Dear Elizabeth. After all Mr Mandela is himself the chief of a tribe and when he returned the favour he introduced the Queen to a number of his fellow chiefs, or kings if you like. They all got on famously.
I have never had the chance to meet her although I have seen her many times, first at my school when she visited to help us celebrate its 450th anniversary, then on numerous occasions at Royal Ascot, and most recently at one of her famous Buckingham Palace Garden parties to which I had the opportunity to go with my family. I have met all her children on a number of occasions and had the pleasure to work with Prince Charles for several years. Unfortunately his approval rating is lower at 42%, still better than the politicians, but nowhere near his Mother’s, no doubt partly because of the Diana affair and also because the public associate him with oddball opinions. The reality is that through the Prince’s Trust he has probably helped more young people into work than any government scheme. I worked with him on the launch of Duchy Originals which were conceived to set a good example to British farmers, address the problem of the balance of payments in food, demonstrate that organic food products could sell, and make profits for his charities. I can’t see what’s wrong with any of that.
My daughter has had the honour to meet Her Majesty because she worked in the Queen’s Gallery for a year or so. It is the custom of The Queen and Prince Philip to give Christmas presents to all their staff. Through a mix-up my daughter missed hers and so she was invited to a special gathering and the Queen made a point of chatting to her. She told this hilarious story about an owl that was making his presence felt in the Palace Gardens. The story came complete with royal hoots.
Her Majesty’s mordant wit is well known. At one of her Garden Parties she was talking to one young woman whose mobile phone suddenly blared out. The Queen said:
“You’d better answer that. It might be someone important!”
So let us celebrate Elizabeth, her reign, her service to the nation, and through that, the nation itself. My wife and I have reserved a good spot from which we can see her at the head of the 1,000 vessel flotilla on the Thames tomorrow. Then on Monday we will enjoy our street party, a tradition we started to celebrate her Golden Jubilee and have kept up every year since.
Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved
[i] Leviticus 25:10
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you - and you shall return every man unto his own clan, you shall return every man to his family.
When the field reverts in the Jubilee year it shall become holy unto the Lord, as a field set apart; and it shall become owned by the priests