Britain's monarch is a guiding star in the storm of politics
I met Britain's Queen Elizabeth once in a line up at Buckingham Palace before a state dinner when I was the editor of The Daily Telegraph. These occasions only allow for a brief introduction and handshake before you are moved on to mingle with the lesser royals, cavalry officers and other officials before sitting down to dinner.
Unlike ministers, prime ministers and many other royals, the Queen keeps her distance from newspaper editors. One can hardly blame her, given the often stormy relationship between the royal family and the media.
The Queen, who visits Abu Dhabi at the end of the month, does not as a rule interfere in government affairs or make public pronouncements other than the annual message to her subjects at Christmas. To do so would prompt awkward questions about the unique amalgam of rights and duties that underpin one of the most high-profile constitutional monarchies in the world.
Suffice to say, the Queen has a right to be consulted and to give advice on a host of issues relating to governance (royal prerogatives), but this role is conducted behind closed doors, in private conversation with ministers. In the words of the Victorian writer Walter Bagehot: "The Queen reigns, but she does not rule."
Unlike some other British royals, both past and present, Her Majesty knows the meaning of discretion. She knows that royal influence is most effectively projected through service and duty rather than via the chat show sofa or the literary expose. She has never given a full length interview. That is one reason why we crusty old refugees from a world dominated by reality television and social media admire her so.
The Queen's laudable reticence does not prevent the occasional signal from Buckingham Palace reaching the Fourth Estate, however. I was once invited to lunch by a royal aide for what I imagined was a routine bridge building exercise with my newspaper (the Queen reads the Telegraph) and was told, amid the pleasantries, that eyebrows had been raised at the then government's failure to consult over proposals to remove the royal designation from titles of institutions such as the Crown Prosecution Service. Scoop!
Unhappiness at the government's proposal was not born from arcane feelings of preciousness or vanity on the part of Buckingham Palace. The use of the words "Crown" or "Her Majesty's" (in reference to ships, prisons, armed forces etc) underline the role of the monarch as the guarantor of Britain's key institutions and as a non-partisan symbol of their permanence.
True, in the royal address at the beginning of each parliamentary session, the Queen announces, rather than engenders, domestic policy. True, she effectively rubber stamps the outcome of the electoral process by asking a new prime minister to form a government. But she stands as a powerful constitutional reminder that the instruments of state are never owned, but borrowed for a while from ordinary people by an elected leadership.
Key aspects of Britain's political settlement - hereditary peers, the bonds of union between constituent parts of the United Kingdom, and arguably the monarchy - have been weakened or abolished. Human rights legislation from Europe has also been allowed to find a place within Britain's sovereign legal system.
As prime minister, Tony Blair benefited from an electoral system that tends to produce majorities for one party in Parliament. Even as the old (and to some, antediluvian) checks and balances waned, the Blairite state grew with the support of significant majorities.
Legislation and the public sector grew; taxing and spending grew. One can see why, in their haste to rename the Crown Prosecution Service the Public Prosecution Service, no one in government thought it necessary to consult the Crown.
Mr Blair's presidential style, his drive to make New Labour a regime rather than a mere government, sometimes sat uneasily with the reality of another national icon that has been around since well before Parliament. But it is worth noting that the New Labour boat, despite Mr Blair's manifest gifts and achievements, has disappeared beneath the waves. Her Majesty steams on reassuringly.
Amid continuing republican-tinged rantings from the left, opinion polls still point to enduring support for the Queen and the monarchy.
The Commonwealth, by and large, remains bound to the monarchy culturally, strategically and emotionally.
This is as much due to the Queen's personal attributes as to her position. She is described by her biographers as shy and modest, but possessed of unshakeable convictions that centre on devotion to God, to her family, to her country and the Commonwealth diaspora, and always to duty.
This last conviction is what prompts her to leave the comfort of her beloved Balmoral Castle and engage in the everyday business of snipping ribbons, shaking hands, smiling and waving, serving and taking tea and showing heartfelt interest in the mundanities of life lived away from palaces and parliament. She is famous (and loved) for being normal.
Welcome to Abu Dhabi, Your Majesty.
Martin Newland is the editorial director of The National
Published: November 3, 2010 04:00 AM