Our gracious Queen

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of Canada, becomes this week the longest-serving monarch in British history. This will be on Wednesday, a little after noon our time, when Queen Victoria’s sixty-three years, two hundred sixteen days, will (Insha’Allah) be surpassed. I do not think she reads this Idleblog, but if anyone who does is speaking to her, please pass along my loyal and devoted congratulations.

I mention this on British North American “Labour Day,” as it is such an extraordinary work history. There is no question the Queen, now in her ninetieth year, has been among the hardest-working of all the people in the present and former British Commonwealth of Nations, through all the time since her sudden and dramatic elevation to the throne, on the untimely death of her beloved father, the 6th of February, 1952.

All of her prime ministers (and there have been hundreds of them) can attest, and most have attested, to the remarkable mastery of her brief; many have been embarrassed to discover that the Queen is better informed than they are, on the very topics they have come to discuss. Such is her presence that, regardless of political party, it is doubtful that any politician has gone back to see her, not thoroughly prepared, a second time.

We call her a “constitutional” monarch, in the sense that the power to make and pass legislation resides, in British realms, entirely with Parliament; and so she is obliged to give royal assent to their various, typically foolish schemes. The Speech from the Throne in every House, modelled on Westminster, is written in the office of the Prime Minister of the day, not in the Palace. This is a great pity, but is the result nevertheless of a long, mostly unwritten, constitutional history that cannot easily be undone, nor should be except gradually, with abundant caution. Happily no one, who is not insane, holds our Queen responsible for the nonsense she must read and sign.

Yet behind closed doors she has an influence that has grown with her experience over the years. In their memoirs, I think every British prime minister since her first (Winston Churchill), has credited her useful contributions, simply from asking questions or making suggestions that no one else had thought of. For she is in possession of a fine political mind, able to compass details that lie beyond the reach of most politicians.

A very intelligent, elderly, constitutional monarch is of inestimable value in this regard. She serves, in a sense, as a living institutional memory. Even a young one has the advantage of a family history, and an upbringing, of value as a corrective to men who can think only of immediate personal advantage — risen as they are from the gutter, up the greasy pole. She is there to remind, or even to teach them, in a place where their vulgarity will not be exposed: behind those closed palace doors.

Which is to say nothing of the worthy monarch as a living symbol of a nation in its breadth and unity, above the stench and sleaze, the deceit and corruption of the democratic process.

Discretion is a real virtue in government and diplomacy — human lives depend upon it — and so great is Her Majesty’s accomplishment, that no one is able to guess her private political views. From the left of the Labour to the right of the Conservative Party, each has been under the impression that she sympathizes in some obscure way with at least some of their views; but none can articulate what this amounts to, beyond a prudent, thoughtful, and general benignity.

Queen Elizabeth is immensely charming, except on occasions when it is not in the interests of civility to be charming. She is secretly capable of rather cutting remarks, among trusted friends; and of a sharp wit she is on guard not to exhibit publicly. Indeed, it takes great intelligence to learn how to be boring in the proper way, on all State occasions; and most of her waking hours have been, since 1952, tedious State occasions.

On the other hand, she has been straightforward in defence of what were, until very recently in the decline of our civilization, the “motherhood issues.” Those who have audited her Christmas and other public messages over the years will know the aggregate effect of the delicious phrases she is apt to repeat. My own favourite is, “My husband and I,” so often dropped in to avoid the “royal we,” without conceding its formality, and falling just short of droll.

My own loyal heart has beat the fonder since a moment in Canterbury, many years ago, when I watched her perform the duty of providing some light, extempore public chatter, right after the Anglican Primate.

“The Archbishop of Canterbury has just spoken to you on the subject of sin,” she began. “And he was, against. … I shall now speak on the subject of the family. And I shall be, for.”

Much more one could say about this gracious woman, who has truly earned the love and admiration of the great majority of her subjects, so that even the nasty republicans among them do not speak against her personally; and even the brutish Scots nationalists are careful to specify that they would keep the Queen. They will perhaps attack her children for their sometimes loutish, modern behaviour; or even her (magnificent) husband for his quaint habit of uttering truths that have become politically incorrect, but through her entire reign, so far as I recall, there was, outside Quebec, only the one moment of popular hysteria — after the death of Princess Diana — when the vicious mob turned briefly against her. This was over a question of protocol that they did not have the education to understand.

On which occasion she had the wit to break with protocol, and lower a flag that is never lowered in mourning, to assuage and calm them. It was done in the same alert serenity with which she once controlled the horse on which she was riding, that nearly bolted from a gunshot nearby — undistracted by any thought that the bullet was probably meant for her.

For this is the skill by which all monarchs should be judged, whether they be “constitutional,” or “absolute,” or something in between. The mob — “the people” — are like a wild horse: not evil, necessarily, or not always evil; but wild and, in emergencies, needing to be soothed and tamed. The role of the monarch is to prevent them from hurting themselves, or hurting each other, in the unpredictable moments of alarm. Her Majesty has shown positive genius through all the alarms of sixty-three years, and counting.

And verily: Long may she reign!