Amid the bloodshed and chaos that followed David Cameron’s resignation as prime minister, Theresa May earned praise for seeking to convey calm and steadiness. In the speech with which she launched her bid to succeed him, she said: ‘I know I’m not a showy politician ...I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve. I just get on with the job in front of me.’ These were just the kind of words that many people reeling from the Johnson-Gove fiasco were happy to hear from another possible prime minister. But there is already someone in a great office who could say these words with even greater conviction, and that is our head of state, the Queen. For there is no one else in British public life who so consistently hides her private feelings and gets on with the jobs in front of her. More than anyone else, the Queen conveys calm and steadiness. And if people yearn for stability in these troubled times, she alone now represents it.
She is so reluctant to wear her heart on her sleeve that, when she’s asked how she’s feeling, she will only admit to being still alive; and when it comes to getting on with the job in front of her, she has few equals among people of any age. Last year she carried out 306 engagements, 35 of them abroad. And this year, the one of her 90th birthday, she may well have been surprised to find she is still alive, for her workload has been yet more enormous.
Apart from her reception of the usual list of routine callers, such as departing and arriving ambassadors, there have been her own special birthday to celebrate, the centenaries of the battles of Jutland and the Somme to commemorate, visits to Liverpool and Northern Ireland to pay, and a visit to Edinburgh to open the fifth session of the Scottish parliament, at which in a speech she urged British politicians to allow ‘room for quiet thinking and contemplation’ in the aftermath of Brexit.
While Brexit has put most people in a stew, the Queen is one person who needn’t worry, for it will leave her unscathed. In fact, her position has probably never been as secure as it is now. Whatever Britain’s departure from the EU may entail for the rest of us, it won’t affect her own role. Even if Scotland obtains independence, she will go on being its monarch; and she will go on being the queen of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and every other territory she now reigns over. For her sway extends far beyond Europe, from the Solomon Islands to the Falkland Islands, and she will continue being the head of the Commonwealth.
It is in Britain, however, that we need her most. She is reassuringly calm in a time of troubles, and a person who commands respect while others in public life are losing it. And her standing is increased by her vast age and her long occupancy of the throne. In 2002, the time of her Jubilee when she was a mere 76 years old, she made clear she would never abdicate but would continue ‘to serve the people of this great nation of ours to the best of my ability through the changing times ahead’.
Some people may think that nobody should do any job for too long, that everybody gets bored and stale in the end, and that, in any case, it is the duty of people of a certain age to pack it all in and make way for the next generation. But there are certain jobs in which age is a real asset, jobs in which continuity, experience and wisdom are much more important than energy and competence at running things.
These are jobs (the papacy springs to mind) that rely on moral authority and are often linked to the idea of lifelong sacrifice and service, and the monarchy is one of them. There is something mesmeric, even awesome, about the same individual performing the same routine constitutional functions — opening parliament, conducting investitures, etc. — year after year. So may the Queen keep her promise to serve us ‘through the changing times ahead’.