The Diamond Queen

It’s said that more images have been made of Queen Elizabeth II than any other woman in the history of the world. That’s partly because her sixty-year reign has coincided with a tidal wave of news, film and photography – but it’s also a reflection of her worldwide reach.

By Andrew Marr, BBC One

 

She has lasted longer in the public eye than the most dogged Hollywood stars and she has also, like a certain lager, reached the parts that even a long career in film (or politics) can’t stretch to. The doing of the Queen and her family are followed from small towns in South America to Mumbai, India, from Japan to Oman. All that is in part because she puts in the miles.

She has clocked up more than ninety overseas state visits around the world, everywhere from Moscow and Beijing to the members of the 54-strong Commonwealth. However, that is just the start. On her now decommissioned royal yacht Britannia, the Queen made 968 official voyages, calling at more than 600 ports in 135 countries and travelling more than a million nautical miles. Since Britannia was retired, she flies more but has been whisked around by car, minibus, train and even golf buggy; she is by far the most travelled and most seen British monarch ever.

 
You may very well ask, why? As with her manic work schedule in Britain (a constant round of local visits, government paperwork, investitures, audiences with politicians) what is this all for? Does it – does she – really matter, other than serving as the pleasant, unthreatening focus for gooey nostalgia?
 
The foreign visits are a good place to start. Behind the glitz and the waving, they are essentially a projection of British business and influence in an age when the Royal Navy’s shrivelled to a fraction of its old self. The Foreign Office and the big British companies lobby hard for the Queen’s visits, and behind her come a trail of diplomats, military bods, and businessmen with something to sell. Every country, these days, needs to find ways of being noticed; she is one of Britain’s.
 
More important to her personally, however, is the Commonwealth. It is a pretty odd collection of wealthy nations, such as Australia and Canada, and the hugely populous India, plus many poor regions and quite a few tiny nations too. Overwhelmingly English-speaking, it’s popular enough to be attracting some of Africa’s Francophone countries too. It has no separate military or trade identity, but it brings together leaders and people who would ordinarily never meet, to talk about climate change, democracy, the role of women and good government. Essential? Certainly not. Useful and popular? Yes. Would it even still exist without the Queen’s personal enthusiasm?
 
Good question.
 
Having followed the Queen for 18 months and spoken to many other leaders, past and present, she speaks to, I came away thinking there was more to it than that. There’s useful human history to consider too. Here is a woman who knew Khrushchev and Churchill, de Gaulle and JFK, Indira Gandhi and Haile Selassie. She’s known all the US presidents of modern times and she passes on stories and reflections, advice about crises and useful anecdotes, to those who are really close, and who need to know. For a journalist, she may be infuriatingly discreet; but for leaders she trusts she is a fountain of knowledge and acquired insight. 
 
It has not been all easy. Duty, routine, reading, ritual, have been her daily burden since 1952. The ‘Other Elizabeth’, a woman with her own views, memories, preferences and little habits, is only glimpsed occasionally. A good mimic, they say. Shrewdly observant. Careful with money. Impatient with slowcoaches. Dog lover and fan of horses, of course. Making BBC films for her Diamond Jubilee, I found very many people — politicians, civil servants, friends of the family — talking at length about how witty the Queen is. But I noticed that when I asked for examples, they tended to tell me what they had said to her, before sitting back with a pleased smirk. Even her family find her a little enigmatic, I think. Prince William put it well: “I think she doesn’t care for celebrity... and she really minds about having privacy in general. And I think it’s very important to be able to retreat inside and be able to collect one’s thoughts and collect your ideas… and then to move forwards.” It was, “a very tricky line to draw between private and public and duty and I think she’s carved her own way completely. She’s not had a blueprint.” 
 
Prince Harry reflects on her ability to turn up, still smiling, at places she might not want to be: “These are the things that, at her age, she shouldn’t be doing, yet she’s carrying on and doing them,” he said in an interview just before the Duke’s heart operation at Christmas. “Regardless of whether my grandfather seems to be doing his own thing, sort of wandering off like a fish down the river, the fact that he’s there — personally, I don’t think that she could do it without him, especially when they’re both at this age.”
 
Now, with her husband aged 90 and beginning to feel it, there is a question about whether the state requires a little too much now of the Queen, at 85 — Britain’s oldest as well as our second longest-serving monarch. I followed her — at a decent distance — on visits around Britain, barely reported in the national media, where she questioned sheep farmers or nurses, inspected stalls and shops, met endless civic dignitaries, Gurkhas on their way to Afghanistan and regiments of school choirs. I don’t think she misses a trick. Late on in the process I half-jokingly apologised for stalking her. She replied she’d noticed — but it had been a good, interesting time, hadn’t it?
 
It certainly had been: it included the royal wedding of Kate and William, the historic visit of reconciliation to the Irish Republic, a trip to the vastly wealthy Gulf states Britain now relies on so much, the long tour of Australia, always tipped to be on the edge of Republicanism, a speech at the UN in New York, Barack Obama’s second arrival at Buckingham Palace and the first-ever state visit of a Pope, never mind the election of a coalition government and the aftermath of the banking crisis. Phew… to think those were only some of the headlines. Remember that she was also bestowing honours, attending services and hot, evening receptions at the palace. Day in, day out, she was sitting at her desk for the arrival of yet another fat red box of official paperwork to read, something she does every day of the year except Christmas. 
 
It is an astonishing workload. I used to follow political leaders around for a living but early on, I noticed that Team Queen — the press officers, minders and others work economically, and harder. It’s mini-vans and bed and  breakfasts, not limousines and grand hotels. There is, of course, an aura of respect and seriousness, though it is not overdone — her Cockney police refer to her, for instance, as ‘the Baked Bean’. When a dress designer arrived from Scotland, determined to measure her in person, she entered cheerfully into the spirit of it, sticking out her limbs — “leg out!” — “arm out!” There’s a lot of laughter. One of her Ladies in Waiting told me, as they entered another civic hall to shrill cheering: “We’re in the happiness business.” 
 
Yet of course at the heart of the job is the political role of Head of State, which means not only the secret paperwork, including security services reports, and grand public events like the State Opening of Parliament, but also those near-weekly and entirely private audiences with her Prime Ministers. Hence back to that fundamental question. Does it really make a difference? 
 
Her 12th Prime Minister, David Cameron, told me: “She asks you well-informed and brilliant questions that make you think about the things you’re doing.” However did that make him do his job better? “I think you reveal both to her, but also to yourself, your deepest thinking and deepest worries... and sometimes that can really help you reach the answers.” This sounds hard-edged.
 
The former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed: “She keeps her ear very much to the ground... though conventionally it’s supposed to be Prime Ministers briefing the Queen I found it a genuine exchange...she had a very clear and shrewd sense of where people would be on political issues.” There was nobody, he added, “who has a better idea of crisis, what it’s like, how it is, and how it also doesn’t go on forever.” He had often talked to her “about the past, about previous Prime Ministers, what it was like, how they handled things. And she was prepared within the context of the audience to be very frank and open and informative.” Blair also, by the way, scotched the story that it was his office who wrote the “As your Queen and as a grandmother” speech she made after Diana’s death: “Those words and that language were her own... absolutely not written by New Labour, no — and the very personal touch was actually hers.” 
 
Following her is also a lesson in the remorseless demands of a modern state. Her visit to Abu Dhabi and Oman was dictated by the desperation of ministers to drum up more investment from one of the richest parts of the world, and to talk about the Iranian threat across the Straits of Hormuz. Her tribute to the firefighters who fell at Ground Zero in New York produced a wave of emotional coverage in the US. Australian republicanism took a heavy knock after her tour there. She has found a personal chemistry with the Obamas that is both real and useful. In addition, in Ireland she ‘closed the circle’ of a bloody history, as the Taoiseach Enda Kenny put it, in a way no other British person could. 
 
There will never be another monarch remotely like this one — who has seen so much, from World War through the terrors of the Cold War and the turbulent social revolutions of the last century. It may well be true that, to her, today’s crises don’t seem quite so daunting. One day she won’t be with us any more. For the British, and I suspect many others too, there will suddenly be a Queen-sized hole. What’s the point of a Diamond Jubilee? Well maybe, we have been taking the Queen a little for granted; and maybe, after 60 years, it’s time we stopped.
 
 
 
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