FEBRUARY 6, 1952. The grimy suburb of Armley, Leeds. A bilious yellow sky and damp that chilled your innards. We were all called out of class and lined up in the yard. The headmaster announced with tremulous solemnity that King George VI was dead.
Then, gathering his courage, in a loud voice, he said: “Long Live the Queen.” I was ten and I could not explain even to myself the sense I had of something of great weight and significance. It was not a day like other days.
It was not a day I have ever been able to forget. That evening by the fire my dad said: “You’re quiet, son. What’s up?”
I just said: “It’s sad, isn’t it?” He put his arm around my shoulder and gave me a piece of chocolate. I cried and took myself off to bed early.
And now, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne, that day haunts my thoughts again.
Does the monarchy matter in our modern, dizzy, globalised pandemonium? The 19th Century writer Walter Bagehot told us that the monarch was only “decorative”.
CH Sisson comments on this: “Bagehot attributed importance to the monarchy but it was an importance of an inferior kind. The Queen was “dignified” in his phraseology: that meant she was not much good. She was for fools to goggle at.
So Trooping the Colour must be regarded as a leg-show of guardsmen, the Crown as a bauble and the Coronation itself as something for the illustrated papers.”
And Sisson develops his criticism of Bagehot to tell us the truth about the function of the Queen: “The Queen rules through her ministers and she does not rule any the less for that. The minister does not attend to the details of his department’s administration.
The minister has one inalienable function which is to secure the coherence of his department.
The Queen has one inalienable function which is to secure the coherence of her country.”
But that the monarchy is not really important – just something to encourage the tourist trade and look good on the telly – is the underlying assumption of all our politicians.
So these politicians follow Bagehot, and therefore Sisson’s criticism applies to them too: “Bagehot’s view was that the paraphernalia of the constitution of Church and Crown and Parliament did not matter so long as the business of the day was done. It is a point of view so familiar to us that it is accepted by most people without a thought.
The unimportance of everything except the promotion of manufacture and the circulation of money now seems to be as unquestionable a truth as ever our former constitutional principles were. Indeed it has replaced those constitutional principles.”
I am reading a couple of biographies of the Queen and her sharp sense of humour. Once when she was in a tea shop near Sandringham, a woman leaned forward and said: “Excuse me, but you do look awfully like the Queen.” The Queen replied: “How very reassuring.”
On another occasion the Queen’s coach splashed mud over a pedestrian in Sandringham.
The pedestrian, a woman, shouted something and the Queen answered her: “I quite agree.” The Duke of Edinburgh turned to the Queen and asked: “What did she say, dear?” The Queen replied: “Bastards.”
Queen Elizabeth has served her people and nation unstintingly, unswervingly for 60 years and continues to do so at the age of nearly 86. Rejoice! Long may she reign!