Dan Hitchens

The political cunning of Elizabeth II: BBC1’s The Longest Reign – The Queen and Her People reviewed

Plus: the bracing delight of David Starkey on GB News, and an hour of the most gripping TV you will ever see

Queen Elizabeth II visiting Harlow New Town in 1957. Credit: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

In all the tributes to Her late Majesty’s constancy, dignity, wisdom and devotion to duty, not enough has been said about her political cunning. But BBC1’s The Longest Reign: The Queen and Her People made a compelling case that Elizabeth II knew just how to tilt the balance.

When she toured the new towns of the 1950s (see image), waving at the crowds with their little Union Flags and taking tea with the young families on the just-built housing estates, she was giving her wordless blessing to the welfare state. When she wanted to bolster the No side in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, her intervention – commenting to a well-wisher outside church that ‘Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future’ – was exactly calibrated to achieve a kind of decisive vagueness.

I can scarcely remember a more gripping hour of television

Of course Elizabeth II was deft in more everyday ways too. One touching story, often related over the last week, comes from the warzone surgeon David Nott, who when telling the Queen about his traumatic experiences in Aleppo felt himself starting to break down. (‘Perhaps it was because she is the mother of the nation, and I had lost my own mother.’) The Queen opened a box of dog biscuits and invited Nott to help her feed the corgis. As relief washed over him, she remarked: ‘There. That’s so much better than talking, isn’t it?’

Indeed it is, which presented a near-impossible challenge, in those first hours of collective grief last Thursday evening, to anyone whose job is to keep talking no matter what. At times the BBC’s newsreaders struggled to keep bathos at arm’s length, as when Huw Edwards solemnly predicted that Prince Harry would arrive at Balmoral ‘in a Range Rover or something of that kind’, or when Jane Hill, looking out over Buckingham Palace, observed: ‘It is the symbol of the royal family, isn’t it, in this country?’ Yet for the most part Edwards, Hill and the rest did a fine job of guiding the nation through the disorientating moment when our figurehead was lost.

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