The abiding memory of yesterday’s 75th anniversary of VE day will not be of the socially distanced wreath-laying ceremonies, or the archive footage of the 1945 celebrations, but of the four-minute speech delivered at 9.00pm by Her Majesty the Queen. Exactly a month ago, after she had delivered her subtly modulated Coronavirus speech, I expressed my admiration for that speech and, while making it clear that I am not instinctively a monarchist, suggested that, if the current President of the USA and our Prime Minister are anything to go by, we can be thankful we have a queen as our Head of State rather than a president. Those who are sensitive to such matters might have noticed that I omitted the formal ‘Her Majesty’ title when referring to the Queen at that time.
My Concise Oxford dictionary gives ‘majesty’ as ‘impressive stateliness, dignity or authority, especially of bearing and language’ as its primary definition, and adds, as its secondary definition, that it ‘forms part of several titles given to a sovereign’. Last night the Queen demonstrated her usual, wholly understated, dignity, authority and stateliness entirely independently of her title. Many of the women, and probably some of the men, watching on television will have noted that being a Majesty is clearly the key to having access to a hairdresser in these socially distanced times, but few are likely to have resented her for that.
The carefully choreographed timing of the Queen’s speech to commence at 9pm to echo the timing of her father, King George VI’s, ‘victory’ speech 75 years ago served perfectly to underline the continuity of the monarchy, as I have no doubt it was intended to. The speech itself was brilliantly crafted as a piece of rhetoric, illustrating for the benefit of some of our politicians that rhetoric doesn’t have to show itself off as being rhetorical to be effective: ‘At the start the outlook seemed bleak, the end distant, the outcome uncertain. But we kept faith that the cause was right.’ No direct reference was made to the current Covid-19 pandemic, there was none of the crude battle-related imagery we have become wearily inured to, but the analogy with World War II was implicit in, ‘Never give up, never despair – that was the message of VE Day.’
Indirectly, and without in any obvious way crossing the forbidden boundary between the political realm and the business of that other realm she is Queen of, Her Majesty’s speech managed to make crystal clear what she thinks about the UK’s departure from the EU: ‘The greatest tribute to their sacrifice [those who fell in the war] is that countries who were once sworn enemies are now friends working side by side for the peace, prosperity and health of us all.’ Why on earth, she didn’t need to go on to ask, would anyone in his right mind want to stop working side by side with those other countries for the peace, prosperity and health of us all, and selfishly try to go it alone in friendless and self-defeating isolation?
The inclusiveness of that ‘of us all’, where the Queen locates herself alongside all her subjects, makes me wonder, as I often do, what she thinks every time she hears our embarrassing national anthem, for which she, of course, is not responsible. If there were to be a global equivalent of the Eurovision Song Contest into which all 195 independent sovereign states in the world (I also watch ‘Pointless’ too often) were to be obliged to enter their national anthems, ours with its sycophantic banality would be likely to come out at the very bottom, with ‘nul points.’ Rather than praying fawningly for the victoriousness and gloriousness of a lone monarch, the national anthems of other countries tend to focus more, as the Queen’s speech did, on the wellbeing of all the people of those countries.
The Queen has seen off a motley procession of 13 Prime Ministers during her reign, and ended up now with Boris Johnson, from whom God might recently have had to resist the temptation save her. Monarchy is a very much less than ideal political system, and there is no guarantee whatever that the Queen’s successors will be able to match her when it comes to majesty. But then, as Johnson and Trump demonstrate all too clearly, democracy also has the potential for disastrously bad outcomes. I didn’t think I would ever say it, but in the present context and after yesterday evening’s four-minute tour de force of a speech, long live the Queen!