The Platinum Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen marked seventy extraordinary years in which our Sovereign has reigned. It is an unparalleled achievement in the history of our country. No monarch since the Norman Conquest in 1066 has served the people of this country for so long. During her reign, the world has changed almost beyond recognition – and yet the Queen has remained as constant and reliable as a rock.
The other day while walking past an antique shop I saw in the window a beautiful engraved box marking the Silver Jubilee of 1977. For many the Silver Jubilee still seems quite a recent event, so seeing the mementoes from those days now turned into antique shop display items felt slightly shocking. At that time cynics asked what was the relevance of monarchy – though one republican rally attracted just five people and was cancelled, while millions turned out to celebrate the Queen’s 25 years on the throne. And now, seventy years since Her Majesty became our Sovereign, we see another national celebration on an even more epic scale.
It is worth pausing to examine why a constitutional monarchy works so well. Despite calls by a minority for a system that is supposedly more “fair” and “democratic”, it remains the case that the monarchy has a higher degree of popular support than any elected politician will ever get. There is therefore a perfectly good case for saying that the commitment to monarchy is democratic.
It is also true – especially evident in times of political controversy – that there is a very great deal to be said in favour of keeping the function of the Head of State entirely separate from the job of Head of Government; that is, keeping the “dignified” and the “efficient” parts of our system quite separate, in the famous words of Walter Bagehot, one of our greatest constitutional theorists. Whatever one’s views of current political events, either at home or overseas, there is little doubt that there is plenty of room for disagreement and dispute. No bad thing in a free country, you might think. One might even paraphrase Oscar Wilde by saying that the only thing worse than a disputatious Parliament is a meek one. Not for us the faux “harmony” of a Chinese People’s Congress where everyone dresses the same, claps in time and “agrees” on everything.
Yet our having a vigorous and often discordant political system does place a greater premium on also having strong institutions around which we can all unite. And this the monarchy does brilliantly, in a way that no other body could match. From the military precision of Trooping the Colour to the delight of Paddington Bear taking tea at Buckingham Palace, and from the latest pop acts at the Platinum Party Concert to the solemnity of the Service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral, the Queen represents the best in all of us and unites all parts of society.
As the commentator Leo McKinstry (himself a former Labour councillor) put it: “It is impossible not to admire a nation whose biggest Jubilee Pageant in the capital featured Ed Sheeran and Basil Brush along with 1,750 members of the armed forces”. Personally I found the evening of coronation music at Norwich Cathedral one of the most moving aspects of the celebrations, especially the profound Handel Coronation Anthem “Zadok the Priest” which I first got to know when I sang it at school. The anthem has been performed at every coronation for over 300 years.
Norfolk’s own Stephen Fry, while introducing the Prince of Wales, summed up the Jubilee beautifully by saying: “Whatever our politics, our beliefs or our backgrounds we can all proudly celebrate in giddy, happy ways our Sovereign’s unparalleled life of resilience, duty, dedication, faith and service. How lucky we have been. How lucky we are. Hooray”.