The Lion and the Unicorn: the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee
Jewel in the Crown
When the Queen came to the throne 60 years ago on Monday there were heady claims that Britain was entering a new Elizabethan Age. Such an idea may have missed the mark in the 1950s and yet, as a leading post-war historian argues in the first in a series about government, politics and the constitution, six decades later it seems spot on
If Vladimir Putin were to ask the head of the UK desk in the Russian Intelligence Service, the SVR, the name of the Brit who carried within them the most secrets about the British security and intelligence agencies and Whitehall generally, the colonel, if he were any good at his job, would reply without hesitation: “The Queen.” Why? Because since February 1952, without a break, she has been conscientiously reading, week by week, the most sensitive material from the secret services and the Joint Intelligence Committee, plus a deluge of the most delicate diplomatic reports and a neverending flood of paper from the economic and domestic departments.
And she doesn’t confine herself to reading. One of the secret service heads told me that the Queen, at their audiences à deux, asked him far more stretching questions than any of the Secretaries of State who had overseen his agency’s operations. There was just a public flicker of this in 2008 when the Queen, during a visit to the London School of Economics, asked the assembled professoriate why if the banking crisis was so big nobody had seen it coming. The British academy convened a pair of seminars, which I chaired, to try to come up with an answer, which we duly sent to Buckingham Palace.
As a historian of contemporary Britain, how I crave an interview with the Queen (on any terms she wished to set) as her extraordinary reign is pretty well coterminous with the road from 1945 (her father, King George VI, made sure she began reading the most important Foreign Office telegrams in 1948). Her thoughts on the withdrawal from empire, the long, reluctant retreat from Great Powerdom, our emotional deficit with Europe, a social revolution or two and considerable changes in the size and make-up of our population would be pure gold if she could share them with her subjects. But she won’t because she can’t. The conventions, rightly, require her to be above the opinionated swirls of her politicians and she is a great one for proper conduct and doesn’t care for those who aren’t.
In historical terms, it’s very difficult for my students to conceive of the world in February 1952 when her admirable father drew his last breath in his sleep at Sandringham. December 1952 brought the Great Smog, which caused mortality rates in the capital to soar by 120 per cent. It was also the year when our debonair Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, declared that joining a federated Western Europe “is something which we know in our bones we cannot do”.
The first-ever British pop-music charts were published (Al Martino’s “Here in My Heart” as the initial number one). The de Havilland Comet made the world’s first commercial jet-powered flight carrying 36 people from Heathrow to Johannesburg for BOAC. Abroad, the Cold War was at near freezing point. The first intelligence reports the Queen would have read cover the progress of the Korean War and Stalin’s intentions in the Kremlin. Eisenhower was elected President and the United States exploded the world’s first hydrogen bomb, plunging the Queen’s subjects even deeper under the nuclear shadow. When she returned from Kenya on the news of her father’s death, the Queen was met at Heathrow by the first of her (so far) 12 Prime Ministers, Winston Churchill. She has been the confidante of all of them. Some, Churchill and Harold Wilson especially, adored her and their weekly audiences got longer and longer. Wilson used to quip that this was the only one of his regular meetings that never leaked and that the Queen was the only person not after his job!
There was a good deal of amiable and optimistic nonsense talked about “a new Elizabethan age” as the coronation of June 1953 approached – an era in which we would bedazzle ourselves and the world as our forebears had allegedly done in the sixteenth century under the first Queen Elizabeth. As a six-year-old growing up in north London I rather fell for this, as did many others, and it’s easy, even now, to see why.
The Queen and Prince Philip were real stardust; genuine box office both here and abroad. The coronation was a golden streak across a still drab, post-war austerity landscape. We knew we had a gift for pageant and ceremony, and this was the tops. The still huge British Empire came home to march in the procession to Westminster Abbey from across the colonies and dominions. The contrast between the beautiful young Queen and Churchill, the rather battered yet utterly glorious old Prime Minister, was as striking as it was engaging and symbolised a deeper strength of our country – our special ability to run the modern alongside the ancient.
There was that Comet occasionally visible in the north London skies on its test flights from Hatfield. The United Kingdom also held the world’s airspeed record. We were then ahead of everyone else in civic nuclear power. And, crowning glory, a Commonwealth expedition put a New Zealander and a Sherpa on top of the unclimbed Everest a few hours before the state coach set off for the coronation at the abbey. Even as a young boy it was plain to me that I belonged to a success-story nation that had prevailed in the war with its allies – and now this glorious efflorescence.
The new Elizabethanry faded quite fast, even before the invasion of Egypt, when Eden’s Suez Affair in 1956 was quickly halted by the United States, splitting opinion in the country and inflaming thereafter every anxiety about our place in the world and the fragility of our economy. The Queen, however, retained her special place, not just within our constitutional arrangements but as a figure of continuity. For all the percussive effects of seemingly endless economic crises, our scratchy, perpetual obsession with status and class, she has remained fully aware of the frenzies but always above them. Apart from wobbles in the 1990s (her annus horribilis in 1992 with family troubles and the Windsor fire; those strange days after the death of Princess Diana in 1997 when some newspapers and a scattering of her subjects felt the need to tell her and her family how to grieve), support for the institution the Queen embodies has remained around two-thirds of those polled.
The republicans have not had the best or most persuasive tunes. In 1952-53 we were still a society dripping with deference. Today,
4 | THE TABLET | 4 February 2012 by comparison, we are scarcely moist. Yet there has been no sign of a republican breakthrough and I’m confident there won’t be one while the Queen is on the throne. And we still don’t know what she thinks about the questions that bother and divide us in times when it’s hard always to conceive of ourselves as a success-story nation.
The nearest perhaps we have come is the late Lord Charteris of Amisfield, one of her former private secretaries, telling me in an interview for a 1994 television documentary about post-war Britain, “You might say that the Queen prefers a sort of consensus politics rather than a polarised one”, and I suspect this is true. But if you are in the Queen’s position, you are the titular, the symbolic head of a country, and the less squabbling that goes on in that country, obviously the more comfortable you feel. Therefore, I believe that politics which are very polarised are very uncomfortable to the sovereign.
There in the words of one of her most shrewd and amiable courtiers is a real glimpse into the mind of the head of state. In addition to consensus at home, she is a profound and lifelong believer in the value of the Commonwealth abroad. This can matter. In 1979, her presence and her careful words at the Lusaka Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting undoubtedly helped ease the way to a solution of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe problem. And no conceivable British president could have eased old hurts as the Queen did during her visit to Ireland last year.
One of the other great constants in the Queen’s life is her faith and the seriousness with which she takes her office as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. This is a quiet but pronounced feature of her reign.
Could it be that the “Elizabethan age” tag, which did not really take in 1952-56, actually fits 1952-2012? In a way it does because of the shared experiences with such a high proportion of her subjects across the highs and the lows of her country’s life over 60 years – more if you add in, as we should, her wartime experience in London during the Blitz and, later, in the army. There are continuities, too, to which the Queen is central. There are moments that show us flaunting a desire to juxtapose the ancient and the modern, the reassuring and the glam, as in last year’s royal wedding. The Diamond Jubilee this year will buff up that combination even more.
And we must add to everything else, her not putting a single foot wrong in terms of where the boundaries of constitutional monarchy lie. There is no written official highway code for this. One suspects she prefers it that way, given her parting words at a historical/ constitutional seminar at Queen Mary, University of London in 1992, when she came to open the new arts building. “The British Constitution”, she said, “has always been puzzling and always will be.”
■ Peter Hennessy sits as an independent crossbench peer in the House of Lord as Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield.
‘The risk with Soft Atheism is that Christians might become smug’
If you want to take the emotional temperature of a country, it’s worth reading the agony columns of newspapers and magazines. The problems submitted often concern women fretting about their divided loyalties between spouse, children, job and parents, and more and more women today complain that the sexual revolution failed to deliver what it promised.
But one recent letter went much further. Worn down by her commitments, disillusioned by feminism, one correspondent asked The Observer’s Mariella Frostrup: “Do you think church is the answer? I don’t believe in God, but all that singing and being grateful has to help, surely?” Frostrup’s reply offered an analysis of contemporary mores: “Community is a thing of the past, social networks are increasingly in cyberspace and we’re all being worn down by the death throes of our once great civilisation.” She didn’t believe in God either, she said – but then admitted that church was as good a place as any to look for salvation.
It seems Frostrup and her correspondent were on to something, going by Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists. De Botton argues that many people are non-believers but still appreciate the beauty that surrounds belief: the music, the architecture, the smells. Atheism offers cold rationalism; religion a feast for the senses.
De Botton acknowledges that he wants to pinch some of religion’s best aspects, particularly its buildings. Nor is he alone here, for he has convinced several philanthropists to give financial backing to his plan for a temple for atheists in the City of London. But can a building dedicated to nothing be as inspiring as a building dedicated to something greater than ourselves?
The author Peter Ackroyd has written convincingly of the way in which most people visiting, say, a centuries-old cathedral discern something greater than its parts. The stone, the glass, the patterning of the floor, the candles, and in a Catholic church, the small red flame: together they help us understand we are in the presence of something mysterious, yet tangible.
De Botton’s softer critique makes for a welcome change after the years of strident attacks on religion by the arch-priests of atheism, Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. That approach was dubbed the “New Atheism” by the media; and this new trend might be called “Soft Atheism”, which acknowledges the merits of religion, from its pleasing aesthetics and its emphasis on community. But it is both dangerous and dubious.
The risk with Soft Atheism is that Christians might become smug about this analysis. It doesn’t fill churches and nor does it suggest that the tenets of Christianity are convincing. The Church can create a small community that slams down the portcullis on society. Or it can ask itself why others have turned their back on faith. It’s the most challenging of questions: some might find life without faith much simpler; they might not want to bother; or they might be alienated by the Church whose timeless truths can become lost amid the rows about minutiae, be it vestments or ritual.
So how can the Church communicate its message? I suggest we turn to the example of those old masters of the art, the Jesuits. They have spotted that many young people, often with little experience of religion, are keen to know more, unlike the grumpy old men of the New Atheism. At a dinner at Heythrop College on Friday evening, I was struck by how the students who are non-believers were as keen on attending the Jesuit-run college as those with a faith. They spoke of how stimulated they were by the conversations they had with the Jesuit priests, and how the dialogue had given them respect for religion.
One student said how infuriated he now was by fervent, ignorant atheists: “You don’t write off physics because you know nothing about physics. Why do that with religion?”
There are questions, though, that some Soft Atheists don’t like. Alain de Botton says: “The most boring and non-productive question one can ask of religion is whether or not it is true.” That may make sense to an atheist who assumes that discussing truth with a believer is an argument without end. But in writing off truth he fails to understand the place of doubt, not in religion, which is essentially about institutions, but in faith.
All believers have their times of darkness, even Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It is struggling to make sense of the truth that makes faith stronger.
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