Though her role is poorly understood, the monarch has preserved the constitution for almost 60 years
As she approaches her Diamond Jubilee, in 2012, Queen Elizabeth II has a personal approval rating as measured by opinion polls regularly topping 80 per cent. More importantly perhaps, she nears the 60th anniversary of her reign having resurrected an institution which 15 years ago looked distinctly mortal. Since the Golden Jubilee of 2002, when three million people attended the London celebrations, the Queen has moved on to another level in public esteem: the troubles of the Nineties behind her, she is accepted by all generations as the nation’s matriarch.
Despite this, in her role as what the Victorian historian Walter Bagehot termed the “dignified part” of the constitution, the Queen remains under-appreciated. By virtue of her apparent absence from the political scene, she appears to many of her subjects — the majority of whom have known no other monarch — to have no political function. This has been compounded over the past four decades by the general dilution of knowledge about the country’s history. So it is only by accident that people become aware of her constitutional duties — when it is revealed to them, for example, in of all things, a feature film (the Oscar-winning The Queen) or, as has just happened, when her name and role is extensively invoked after an election campaign which produced an inconclusive result.
The Queen, in our unwritten constitution, has enormous theoretical powers by way of the Royal Prerogative. In reality, these powers are exercised by the prime minister. A monarch has not withheld Royal Assent to a government Bill since Queen Anne and William IV was the last King to dismiss a PM. The monarch’s constitutional position was best summed up by Bagehot, who said he or she enjoyed “the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn”.
And in this sentence lies the Queen’s great strength. All PMs have taken seriously their weekly meetings with the sovereign. As Margaret Thatcher — with whom Elizabeth’s relations were said to be cool — wrote in her memoirs: “Anyone who imagines that [these meetings] are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience.” This experience and her knowledge of constitutional, political and social issues can only be of immeasurable help to new prime ministers, especially as they are more and more likely to be only half her age.
Any areas of doubt relating to the appointment of the prime minister have also been cleared up during her reign. When David Cameron kissed hands at the Palace last month as Elizabeth’s 12th prime minister, he might have been aware that it has been paradoxically the loyalist Conservative Party which, during the Queen’s reign, has been the cause of constitutional uncertainty which has drawn her towards possible controversy.
Before formal processes were put in place to choose a Tory leader, a suitable candidate was simply allowed to “emerge” from a band of frontrunners. When Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan resigned on health grounds, respectively in 1957 and 1963, the Queen had to seek advice on whom she should summon to the Palace to invite to form a Government. In both cases, the obvious candidate, R. A. Butler, was passed over — in the later case, in favour of the apparently eccentric choice of Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
To some contemporaneous commentators, it appeared that the Queen had been involved to an unacceptable degree in choosing her PM. The truth, however, was that she had acted completely within the bounds of her role by taking the advice of her first minister, Macmillan, who had advised her to send for Douglas-Home as the only individual around whom the party and government could unite. The confusion — and the scintilla of uncertainty that it raised about the monarch’s role — was if anything the fault of the Tories, not the Queen’s.
Her instinct has always been to avoid anything that could be construed as partisan. Even her otherwise much-loved father, George VI, made the highly questionable decision to invite Neville Chamberlain on to the Buckingham Palace balcony on his return from Munich. A similar gesture by the Queen is inconceivable: she has kept all politicians at arm’s length. Perhaps the nearest she has come to a comment on an important constitutional matter was during her Silver Jubilee celebrations, when, in a speech to both Houses of Parliament, she declared that while she understood nascent regional loyalties, she could not forget that she was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom, of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as England. This was seen at the time as the Queen taking a position on devolutionary plans. Whether or not this was so, she has accepted and adapted to devolution.
Perhaps only when she is gone will her silent strengths become clear and appreciated. Her successor’s style is almost certain to throw them into sharp relief.