Picturing The Queen
by Douglas Hurd
When the Queen travels to foreign countries on an official visit she takes with her one of her Ministers, usually the Foreign Secretary. Between 1989 and 1995 I enjoyed this pleasure six times, in France, Germany, the United States, Hungary, Russia and South Africa. There is a reason for this arrangement beyond giving the Foreign Secretary a pleasant outing. Many of the Presidents and Prime Ministers whom the Queen meets are political personalities for whom it is normal to discuss politics. But the Queen cannot get drawn into political controversy. When one of her hosts, for example President Yeltsin in Russia, launched into some political discourse she would intervene with a smile at a convenient moment and say 'that is very interesting, Mr President; I am sure the Foreign Secretary would like to discuss this with you further'. Then it was up to me.
In this way I saw at first hand the impact of the Queen's visit in many different kinds of society across the world. The point is simple. She represents Britain, both our past and our present, in a way which is beyond the reach of any other British personality. From time to time during her reign other British personalities have soared into amazing celebrity for a few years - Princess Diana, for example, or Margaret Thatcher - or now David Beckham. But the impact which they make is different and less enduring. They are shooting stars - the Queen radiates a steady light, partly because she is the Queen, but also because as an individual she possesses the stamina, the courtesy, and the infinite patience needed for her job. The royal magic works, even when you least expect it. Her visit to Russia started rather quietly in Moscow because the Russian Government was too cautious. For example they prevented ordinary people from being present when she and President Yeltsin walked through Red Square. By the time we reached St Petersberg the crowd were thick and enthusiastic. We had the extraordinary sensation in the old imperial capital that the Russians were through the Queen's visit reliving in a poignant way the history of their own Tsars.
None of these visits was easy for the Queen, given the spotlight in which she had to spend each day and evening. But one or two were downright difficult. She carried on her shoulders everyone's memories of Britain, and not all these memories were pleasant. When she came out of the great church at Dresden at the end of a service of reconciliation the big crowd in the square was silent, remembering the devastation of their City by the Royal Air Force towards the end of the last War. The Queen carried off a tense and difficult moment with dignity - and precisely because she had not shirked visiting Dresden the work of reconciliation took a leap forward.
Neither she nor her Government knew how the Queen would be received by black South Africans during her visit in 1995. After all it was only a few years since Mrs Thatcher's government had been locked in argument with the spokesmen of black South Africa about the usefulness of trade sanctions against apartheid. The tone was set by President Mandela, by Archbishop Tutu with his bouncy sermon in Capetown Cathedral - and by the memory of a radio broadcast nearly forty years earlier when Princess Elizabeth, visiting South Africa with the King and Queen her parents, had marked her 21st birthday by pledging a lifetime of dedication to the Commonwealth. When the Queen drove through the townships which surround Port Elizabeth, groups of children raced beside her car on either side, shouting and cheering their enthusiasm, stopping only when they were exhausted and their place taken by the next contingent. As the King of Morocco had said to me during the Queen's visit there in 1980 'I can organise a crowd, but I cannot organise the smiles on their faces'.
The task of conveying the Queen's identity to the public across the world is far from simple. The Queen is a celebrity in an age of celebrities. To a greater extent than ever before the media pluck individuals out of their ordinary lives, shine a bright light on them for a few years, or even a few months, and then in most cases let them slip back into darkness. If she is to fulfil her function the Queen has to be a celebrity with a difference. No one sits down and devises a master plan to bring this about. It happens as a result of mixing a traditional approach with steady change. This is the evolving monarchy of which the Queen spoke in her Jubilee Message to Parliament.
Some elements of this unique celebrity are almost subliminal, for example the presence of the Queen's head on every British stamp and coin, without explanation and as a matter of course. The Jubilee stamp issue neatly illustrates how the passage of time can be incorporated into this device. Unique also is the fact that on British stamps there is no need to mention Britain, the Queen's head is accepted through the world as adequate identification.
The Queen is photographed against a number of backgrounds which are in themselves unique - notably Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. The best background of all has now been abandoned in a remarkably foolish decision by the Government, namely the Royal Yacht Britannia.
The Queen, like her mother, deliberately dresses in a way which separates her both from her subjects and, perhaps more important, from all the other frequently photographed celebrities. The Queen deliberately restricts the range of subjects which she is willing to discuss in public. To some extent this restriction narrows our knowledge of the Queen as an individual person, but it also sets her apart from the celebrities who are ready to chat any time about anything.
The way in which the Queen's identity is presented changes over the years. I am not thinking so much of the decision to pay tax, or to open Buckingham Palace, but more of how she actually appears in public. In the 19th century it was thought undignified for royalty to smile, which is why photographs of Queen Victoria smiling are so rare. As letters and memoirs show, Queen Victoria had a lively sense of humour, but she would have thought it un-royal to display this in public. That has changed. The Queen is not one of those people who naturally wears a smile on every occasion, but when it comes it is special. The walkabout, now an established part of any royal visit, is a new and simple addition to the techniques of royalty and has developed its own momentum. People do not come up to offer small posies of flowers to David Beckham or Joan Collins, but it has become natural to do so to the Queen.
Critics who say that these changes do not transform the Queen into a modern personality are right. But if the Queen became simply another modern celebrity the monarchy would lose its point. It is precisely because the Queen represents a link between our past and present that her position and her role are unique.
The Queen is not only our Sovereign in Britain. When she visits Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica or a number of smaller countries, she does not take the British Foreign Secretary with her. She is visiting as their own Queen, advised by her Ministers in each of these countries, and the British Government has nothing to do with it. Even more significant is her role as Head of the Commonwealth, which of course includes many republics as well as countries of which she is Queen. People in this country find it difficult to understand what the modern Commonwealth is about. Certainly it is not a political or economic bloc. Its members, coming from every country in the world, disagree and argue on most subjects under the sun. But that does not mean that the Commonwealth is useless. At the political level Commonwealth summits provide a meeting place which in my experience has a different atmosphere from other big international gatherings. Almost everyone can speak English with relative ease, and shares to some extent a common background. The result is greater jollity, good humour and jokes which everyone understands - even in the middle of sharp disagreements on particular subjects. The Queen by her presence and the way she entertains and talks with the different Prime Ministers helps to sustain this atmosphere. This is only possible because she steers clear of the arguments themselves. She is above the fray and does not pretend to be an umpire or arbitrator. But her dignity and charm make it more difficult for those present to behave badly, and over the years she has built up affection and respect even from those who do not feel affection or respect for the time their countries spent under British colonial rule.
The Queen's activities each year illustrate the continuity of our nation over the centuries. Such continuity is not a fad beloved only by small-c conservatives. We all live in a world of bewildering change, both technological and social. Our children live lives very different from those of their grandparents, and we know that there will be no pause in the pace of change. We probably like some of the results in the form of greater comfort and wider prosperity, and dislike others in the form of crime, family disruption or drug addiction. But it is easier to cope with rapid change if we are also aware that we are part of a continuing society with a long past, most of which can give us cause for pride. The Queen, by her position and by her own character, embodies that continuity and that quiet pride.
I admit there have been moments during her reign when I have wondered whether this link between the Queen and the needs of the British people was fraying and might break. The reaction to the death of the Queen Mother showed that we need not have worried. The people of all ages and walks of life who queued for hours through the cold nights to pay their last respects to the Queen Mother in Westminster Hall were often asked why they were there. They almost always in reply described in their own words the link between our past and our present and why it was important to them.
For many years the Queen and her mother have carried together the responsibility of representing that link. Now the Queen has to carry the whole responsibility herself. My admiration for the way she does this has grown over the years, as I have watched its warmly and heartening effect on others, both at home and in the countries abroad to which I have travelled with her.