‘We want a queen who is like a parent’: Observer writers down the decades on the monarch’s reign

Roger Fulford, writing in Februarie 1952

In the last few days, reverting to the habit of half a century ago, we have acclaimed “our most gracious Sovereign Lady the Queen”. Inevitably, the minds of those in middle life will wander back to former times when God Save the Queen seemed to be a part of the established and endless glory of Victorian England.

But we can profitably look back for guidance and portents to those 64 years when Great Britain was last ruled by a Queen – even if the backward glance reminds us of the great gulf fixed between the world which knew President Kruger and the world which knows Premier Stalin. The comparison at least sets before us the abiding problems which face a woman sovereign of this country.

Alison Settle writing in 1952

It is not only to the new Queen and her mother that the hearts of the nation have gone out, but also to Queen Mary, to whom her granddaughter owes so much of her training.

It was she who taught her granddaughters at an early age the stance which fights fatigue, the art of relaxing between one duty and another, and the fact that even if uninterested in what was being told them, the more they learned to memorise the words said to them, the greater would be their air of interest.

It is perfectly correct for Princess Margaret to experiment with styles, but in the Queen surprise was an undesired quality. They are figureheads before they are human beings, a hard theory for a young creature to shoulder as a light task, but one with the new Queen has long accepted.

Hugh Massingham

describes the Queen’s return from her five-month Commonwealth tour in 1954

The Queen arrived shortly after half-past three, but the crowd knew long before this that she was on her way. A distant band played the national anthem and presently, from the river, there arose a great clamour of welcome as ship after ship blew its siren. The airmen guarding the route bustled to attention, en toe, from the direction of Parliament Square, a sovereign’s escort of Household Cavalry came prancing and dancing down this famous street.

And then there she was at last, bronzed by all those suns in Australia and New Zealand, and Tonga and Tobruk. Tiny Princess Anne sat opposite her, flipping a small hand in salute; Prince Charles was beside her, facing his father. The family was home and among the sights and buildings they knew so well. Here was the Cenotaph with its banners and sad poppy wreaths, the old Treasury, the white colossus of the new board of trade, in the distance tumbled the fountains of Trafalgar Square and, topping everything, Nelson eternally looking on.

Malcolm McLaren

writing in 2002 about the 1977 silver jubilee

On the same fateful day known as the silver jubilee, the media fell in love with the Sex Pistols. That day, die Daily Mirror placed our portrait of the Queen – a modified version of the famous Cecil Beaton photograph with a safety pin pierced through her nose – on its cover. The official portrait was relegated to page nine. The media preferred to love ours instead.

I was forced to stand in line in the streets at the Queen’s coronation in 1953. I waved a flag as she went past in her golden carriage. I think then a great deal of the population thought that the Queen had been chosen by God.

In those days, if you didn’t believe in God, then God help you. The country was still a Christian land. The Union Jack. The Queen, the government and the Church of England were the pillars of our thinking.

You were made to feel culturally moribund without such beliefs.

Derek Ingram

on the Queen and the Commonwealth, writing in 1977

Today we find that, as the Queen passes her silver jubilee, she has developed “elder statesman” qualities which command respect for her in all Commonwealth countries not as queen of the United Kingdom but as a person in her own right: she is above the daily political struggle yet in a unique way she has influenced events and played a vital role in keeping the Commonwealth in existence not as an extension of empire (nor as an extension of Buckingham Palace), but simply because she believes, as do so many others around the world, that it is at the least a useful grouping for nations throughout the world to belong to.

Katharine Whitehorn

writing about the Queen on her 60th birthday in 1986

We all want to believe in the fantasy of the drama queen, but coupled with an ordinariness with which we can identify. We want a queen who wears a gem-studded crown at one end and old bedroom slippers at the other; and it is for hitting this mixture for the most part dead right that this queen deserves congratulations.

As Harold Nicolson said about Queen Victoria, “Her subjects could feel that in any crisis she was weeping the same salt tears into the same over-strong tea as they were.’’

The Queen embodies not the norm, but what Matthew Arnold called the Sunday-best morality of people: their idea of what a good woman ought to be like.

She is at the top of a system of restraints that would have woefully broken down in your case or mine, but that must surely be going on somewhere – people want their sovereign to be better behaved, more restrained, more reliable in much the same way that a parent is.

Donald Trelford

on the royals and the media in 1987

Satellite television has turned the British royals into global media megastars. The Queen’s visit to the United States [in 1983] attracted four times as many pressmen as for any other head of state in the world – and twice as many as the pope.

The first of press secretary Michael Shea’s royal tours attracted only half-a-dozen pressmen: for the US and China there were over 3,000. He has accompanied the Queen to 53 lande. He professionalised media access and facilities for trips like these, opening doors and drawing back curtains as far as he possibly could.

Robert Harris

on the Queen’s personal politics, written in 1988 during Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister

Twenty years ago, the Labour politician Richard Crossman – then Lord President of the Council – asked one of the Queen’s advisers, Godfrey Agnew, “whether she preferred the Tories to us because they were our social superiors”. According to Crossman, “he said, ‘I don’t think so. The Queen doesn’t make fine distinctions between politicians of different parties. They all roughly belong to the same social category in her view.”

But if social differences have largely melted away since the Queen assumed the throne, the ideological gulf has become much wider. During the miners’ strike four years ago, the Queen let it be known that she wanted to see more vigorous attempts to settle it by the government. She expressed worries about the deliberately engineered mass unemployment of 1981-82. She is said to be fearful of the divisions between north and south.

When the Americans invaded the Commonwealth island of Grenada [in 1983] sonder om toestemming te vra, a furious monarch summoned her prime minister to Buckingham Palace and is said to have left her standing throughout the audience.

Mary Riddell

writing at the time of the golden jubilee in 2002

The Windsors, soos The Simpsons, are here to stay. Rumours that the world’s most celebrated dysfunctional families may face their demise have, in both cases, proved premature. Matt Groening pledges his cartoon will continue, terwyl, in the west country, the Queen’s travelling roadshow has triumphed over rain, cynicism and her husband’s Homeresque comments.

On television, the first episode of William Shawcross’s genuflection to the royal jubilee attracted 5.5 Dit het gelyk of dit omstredenheid vir sy eie onthalwe gesoek het, so trouncing not only The Simpsons but also the European Champions League semi-final between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Her Majesty, as she explained last week to her loyal subjects, is going nowhere.

Andrew Rawnsley

marks the Queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012

Her most fundamental achievement has been to preserve a hereditary monarchy in an age of democratic populism and to do so over six decades of tumultuous change in the rest of society. There have been infusions of new blood to refresh the family brand, which seems to be working well with Kate Middleton, but went disastrously wrong in the case of Diana.

Her death in 1997 was the other crisis point for the monarchy. Yet those republicans who thought this might be their moment were soon proved deluded. Na alles, the tabloid bellowing at the Queen to “show us you care” and the crowds in the Mall clamorous for her presence were not asking for less monarch. They were demanding more.

Afua Hirsch

on the royal wedding in 2018

Wanneer Oprah Winfrey entered the chapel at Windsor Castle, one TV anchor joked that for some people, it was the moment the real queen arrived. Winfrey’s attendance was a reminder that, between her and Meghan Markle, the bride whose wedding she had come to watch, perhaps the two most famous women in the world today are of African heritage.

At this royal wedding, talented black people were more than adornment. Die preek, delivered by the Episcopalian church leader the Rev Michael Curry, began with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr before enlightening the congregation on the wisdom of spirituals – traditional African American music rooted in the experience of slavery – and casting Jesus as a revolutionary. If there had been any doubts about what cultural experience Curry would bring to the service, they were swiftly and decisively answered.

David Mitchell

writing about the removal of the Queen’s portrait from an Oxford college in 2021

In Brittanje, the Queen is supposed to be a unifying symbol. Crucial to making that work is avoiding too much specific discussion of her. She needs to remain a benign figure on whom everyone can project whatever they want her and Britain to stand for.

So these Magdalen students say she is associated with colonialism, while Gavin Williamson, secretary of state for education, says she’s “a symbol of what is best about the UK” who promotes “British values of tolerance, inclusivity and respect”, someone on Twitter claims that the Queen is actually “a pioneer of anti-racism” and Toby Young completes the circle by saying of the students: “It is baffling that they associate the Queen with colonialism.”

It’s really not baffling. It is eminently comprehensible. It might be unfair but it’s not like associating her with rising knife crime. When she became Queen, Britain still had loads of colonies and she seemed fine with that. Then that largely stopped and she also seemed fine with that. Analysis of all the mutually contradictory things she has seemed fine with over her exceptionally long reign isn’t going to help the country and is very unfair on an elderly woman who has handled the frankly surreal circumstances of her existence with stoicism and dignity.

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