30 May 22. Those who watched the excellent BBC1 documentary that showed previously unseen footage of the life of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11 and her family from her own private collection will I am sure agree with me that this was an absolute delight in every respect. Brilliantly put together by those who produced it, this was a credit not only to the BBC at its absolute best and all those involved in restoring film from old cine reels, but to Her Majesty herself for allowing us to all enjoy and understand that, just as her father King George the V1 was and her people are too, Queen Elizabeth believes passionately in the values of family. I commend his programme to you and would say that if you watch nothing else over the Platinum Jubilee weekend, these 77 minutes of sheer delight, are a must to see on BBC iPlayer.
I was particular moved by the quote that Her Majesty used from her first prime minister, Winston Churchill who had said to her “the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see”.
There is much to commend that particularly poignant Churchill quote, particularly as we observe week by week the carnage occurring in Ukraine and begin to imagine what Russia may do next. These are wise words that remind that there are few events in past geo-political history, diplomacy and war from which lessons can and should be learned and that in the process point to potential dangers and perils that may lie ahead.
During last night’s BBC1 programme the Queen used the words such as ‘we cannot know what lies ahead’ and which I in part took to be a reference that was as much to do with the future of the monarchy as anything else.
We can by looking back of the 70 years of Her Majesty’s reign, see and realise just how much has changed and particularly in attitudes. Our politics, politicians and personal attitudes are very different to those that existed through the first fifty years of the Queens life. No longer is natural deference visible and tolerance and acceptability of the status quo often no longer exists in the way that it did. Gone today sadly is much of the natural respect that we had for each other, for those that we elect.
Today’s world has become more of ‘mine by right’ and I am saddened to think that under future monarchs we may never again see the magnificent cheers, laughter and joy that we have so often seen expressed in the past. The one thing that we know for sure is that the future will be different to the past.
Adapting to change is not something that is new of course. Far from it and while the older generation living in the 2020’s can quite easily say that ‘it wasn’t like that in my day’ and perhaps infer that it was better in the past than it is today I would venture to suggest with great respect that every generation over the past 150 years and more has probably said the same.
It is of course not for us to sit in judgement. Such is the speed of change in how we live, in how we think or perhaps do not think of others first and particularly in how personal attitudes in how we live have changed in my lifetime that we can do little else but brace ourselves to accept that the pace of change now is all but unstoppable.
Of course, while we may mourn some of what we have lost we need to remember that we are all beneficiaries of change as well. While we still observe far too much poverty and homelessness and understand how situations such as the huge increase in cost of living that we are witnessing once again is an intolerable burden for many, but is it worse than the poverty endured by so many during the Victorian era?
Today our society demands a different kind of tolerance, one that believes passionately in the need for justice and that pays lip service to equality and fairness. HM Queen Elizabeth has, more than any monarch since Queen Victoria, reigned over a massive social transformation of our country. Her father, King George V1 and her grandfather, King George V had each reigned through torrid world-wars and that would in subsequent years begin a reshaping of our nation.
Before becoming Queen and after witnessed the end of empire and the forming of the Commonwealth. She has witnessed and presided of dramatic transformation and change both for better and worse. She has also presided over a decline in values, self-discipline and particularly, that of the Church. Our landscape has dramatically changed since 1952 both in terms of our cities, housing and our culture.
Whilst family remains of huge importance, generations of families no longer live together as they did in the days when a shortage of homes was so apparent after the second world war. We eat differently, we have a mass of leisure activities at our disposal that could hardly have been dreamed of when she came to the throne as a young near 26-year old. We had railways and public transport aplenty but today almost everyone has a car or access to one and flying abroad for holidays is considered the norm rather than a huge and very expensive adventure reserved for a few.
We have everything except perhaps satisfaction and realisation of just how fortunate many of us are. We live our lives very differently and those of us who did not go to University are frowned on by some of those misguided enough to believe that nothing else matters but the benefit of a University education.
Through all this so-called change for the better, Queen Elizabeth has to a great many of us provided stability and continuity as our Queen and our Head of State and long may that continue.
We know that the future will be different from the past and that the age of progress is unstoppable. What is progress to one may not necessarily be seen as progress to another and I suspect that we must accept that the next generation of the monarchy will be very different from the current and past. As we embrace cultural change, we also realise that society will further change. That is inevitable and no one must stand in the way of progress.
I suspect that I have been very fortunate to live all but the first three years of my life in the Elizabethan age. What change I have seen. Steam was still ‘King’ when I was a boy and Britain still led the world in mechanical engineering design and production, manufacturing, aerospace and car production and export. Those days are long past but we still have so much that we can be proud of. And through all that and leaving politics and all other change completely aside, Queen Elizabeth has stood for stability, the family and very necessary continuity.
As was very clearly displayed throughout the BBC1 documentary last evening, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth was very close to her father, King George V1 – just as he and his Queen were to both his children. So, I will end this commentary piece today repeating some of the late journalist and broadcaster James Cameron’s words from a piece published in the London Illustrated News on the 23rd February 1952 following the funeral of King George V1 and that, as we celebrate the wonderful occasion of Her Majesty’s 70 years as our Sovereign Queen and perhaps inevitably look to the future, remain to me very poignant:
“When a King dies, we who have to put into words the strange grief and grievous strangeness of the time, then know how ill we have served ourselves over the years. While the King lived, we spoke of him as this, and of that, endowing him with all the remote virtues of an infallible man; such men do not die. But the King died; and we found somehow a different thing: that we loved him. When a King dies, the worn words are empty; there is nothing left to say.
He died quietly and without imposing his passing on the nation, as befitted a gentleman who was as shy and considerate and shrank from the public drama of death. When it came, it came as he deserved, kindly – a good night, a book at the bedside, a little sleep. The least amongst us can ask no more and no better.
But that was the end of privacy. The King was gone, but kingship remained, to become for a while the overwhelming emotion of the land. The man who had been diffident all of his life, who had dutifully permitted publicity about everything except his suffering, now stilled the noise and hushed the argument and silenced the affairs of State, and drew for the moment an inescapable curtain of mourning over the lives of millions who had never seen his face.
What is a King that so many strangers should sorrow at his going? His title endures, work goes on, no crisis is changed, no personal problems eased or worsened, the harassed world outside is deflected in no way from its obsessions. Yet, when King George V1 was known to be dead the sudden shadow fell momentarily across the heart of every man; loyal men and cynics, the rich and the dispossessed, reactionaries and radicals.
What is a King, then, a mortal man, who exacts this tribute from twentieth century people? Constitutional lawyers will tell you what he was. Politicians will tell you what he was unable to be. A vast historic chronicle of precept will tell you that his position was most intricately poised on the peak of Government. It will say that the Monarchy this country devised for itself over the generations is like no other that ever existed, I its ancient root and its modern tolerance; its power without authority; its simple splendour and elaborate simplicity.
Only in a strange country like ours could an apparently indestructible fortress be built on such a slender web of compromise and affection, that no logic could create and no law enforce.
What is a King, therefore, that hundreds of thousands of strangers should wait all night in the bitter cold to file for a moment past his bier? That person cannot be an Office, or a Function; he must be a man. And there lies the simple truth: our people knew him as a good man. They knew him for a man without ostentation, without ambition, doing an intolerable job and doing it well. They know now, moreover, that that the job weas harder than they thought, and the end nearer.
We may not have known as citizens – how could we? – but the ancestral memory of England knows it. The people of England have not always loved their Kings. Among them have been tyrants, conquerors, oppressors, imbeciles, and mediocrities. England has endured them, reviled them, deposed them and, where necessary, executed them Sometimes, only, have they loved them and we think of this as such a time.
CHW (London – 30th May 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785