On Friday 23rd June, I was deeply proud to be the keynote speaker at a special dinner held by the Rochford & Southend East Conservative Women’s Organisation in honour of the Sapphire Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen. Below is a transcript of my speech.
“Thank you, ladies & gentlemen, for that very warm welcome. It gives me great pleasure to be here this evening but, of course, none of you are really here for me. We are all here for one very special person and that person is Her Majesty the Queen, who this year marks Her Sapphire Jubilee; an unprecedented 65 years as Queen of the United Kingdom and Her other realms and territories.
She is currently Sovereign of 12 countries, though that number has fluctuated during Her long reign, with many former possessions now republics. She is the first British monarch ever to celebrate a Sapphire Jubilee and is now, at 91 years of age, the oldest reigning monarch in the world and both our longest-lived and longest-serving British monarch, having surpassed her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, in 2015. Indeed, since the death of King Rama IX of Thailand last year, She is now the longest-serving Head of State anywhere in the world.
I am a borough councillor in Basildon but I am here tonight in my capacity as an avowed monarchist, loyal subject, and all-round royal nerd. But before we get on to the particulars of Her Majesty’s reign, let me just say that I make a distinction between being a mere ‘royalist’ and being a ‘monarchist’. Royalists tend to be people who romanticise the Royal Family. I think of them as ‘groupies’ for royalty and, as it happens, I am probably one of those as well but, more importantly, I am a ‘constitutional monarchist’. That is to say, in addition to a general romanticism about royalty, I hold a sincere belief in the institution of the Crown as a system of government. Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those that have been tried from time to time” and if that is true then a constitutional monarchy operating as part of a pluralistic representative parliamentary democracy is without doubt the most glorious expression of that particular ‘least worst option’.
Republicans – with whom I have to say I have little sympathy – tend to dismiss monarchy as some kind of antiquated ‘lottery’, relying on a mere ‘accident of birth’ to provide us with a Head of State, and maybe that is true but Britain last played the regal lottery in 1952 and won handsomely and we have not had to gamble again since. In that same expanse of time, how many different presidents have been elected among the world’s republics and how many of those were even remotely memorable? Very few.
Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of York was born by Caesarean section on 21st April 1926 at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair – in a house that no longer exists. It was the London townhouse of Scottish aristocrat, the 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. Princess Elizabeth was the daughter of HRH Prince Albert, Duke of York (known as ‘Bertie’), second son of King George V, and Her mother was the former Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, daughter of Lord Strathmore. The Home Secretary, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, in accordance with long-standing tradition, was present for the birth – a custom dating back to the ‘Warming Pan Scandal’ of 1688, when the son of the unpopular King James II was rumoured to be an imposter, smuggled into the bedchamber inside a warming pan by a chambermaid
I am sorry to have to tell you, 1926 was the last time a Home Secretary was present to verify a royal birth – in what I suspect must have been a relief for Theresa May in 2013, at the birth of Prince George.
Princess Elizabeth’s paternal grandfather, King George V, whom She lovingly referred to as ‘Grandpa England’ and who called Her ‘Lilibet’, was then in the sixteenth year of his reign and in ailing health, suffering from COPD and pleurisy. During his serious illness in 1929, it was the regular visits from his three-year-old granddaughter rather than his convalescence in Bognor, that was widely credited with aiding his recovery. But, of course, he never fully recovered and it was on his eventual death (he was actually euthanised) in 1936 that the story of Queen Elizabeth II really begins.
1936 was the Year of Three Kings. King George V died and was succeeded by his eldest son and heir, the Prince of Wales – Princess Elizabeth’s dashing ‘Uncle David’ – who became King Edward VIII. The new king had always been a rather louche character, who had an awkward relationship with his strict disciplinarian father, who was always appalled by his son’s affairs with married women, most notably the American socialite Wallis Simpson. The late King George had prophetically stated, “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in 12 months”. He also said, “I pray to God that my eldest son will never marry and have children, and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne”. And so it proved to be. When Mrs Simpson divorced her second husband, King Edward determined to marry her over the objections of the British and Dominion governments and, in December that year, abdicated in favour of his younger brother, who succeeded as King George VI.
Her father’s accession to the throne made Princess Elizabeth the Heiress Presumptive, which for a 10-year-old girl must have been quite a mind-bender. Famously, shortly after their father became King, Princess Elizabeth and Her six-year-old sister, Princess Margaret, were perusing the Line of Succession and, realising her elder sister’s position, Princess Margaret asked, “Does that mean you will have to be the next queen?” To which Princess Elizabeth replied, “Yes, someday”. At which Princess Margaret declared, “Poor you”. From that point onwards, this young girl was groomed for Her eventually succession. She was tutored on the Constitution by the Vice-Provost of Eton, She learned French fluently. Unlike modern royal children, who attend posh schools, Princess Elizabeth was educated within the confines of Buckingham Palace by royal governesses.
In 1939, the Second World War broke out and London was blitzed by the Luftwaffe. Many of London’s children were evacuated and it was suggested that the princesses should be sent to Canada but their mother, the redoubtable Queen Elizabeth, steadfastly refused, saying “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave without the King. And the King will never leave”. So, instead, Princess Elizabeth and Her sister spent the war first at Balmoral, then Sandringham, and for most of the last five years until 1945 at Windsor Castle. The Princess was involved in the war effort, famously broadcasting with Her little sister on the BBC’s “Children’s Hour”, addressing all the child evacuees. In 1942, the 16-year-old Princess Elizabeth became Colonel of the Grenadier Guards. She became a Counsellor of State on her 18th birthday and in 1945 joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, where She learned to drive and trained as a mechanic. Famously, She and Princess Margaret mingled incognito outside the gates of Buckingham Palace on VE Day.
The Second World War had broken Her father’s health. King George VI was a quiet, diffident, unassuming man, who had never expected or wanted to be king but who ended up, following his brother’s abdication, being called upon to lead his country during one of the most perilous and trying periods in our island history, despite all his self-doubt and – as anyone who has seen that marvellous film “The King’s Speech” will be aware, crippled by a debilitating stammer, that made any kind of public speaking absolute torture. Nevertheless, with a spirit undaunted, he led his country through its darkest days, visiting the decimated homesteads of his capital with his loyal Queen at his side.
Whenever we think of World War II, we immediately think of Sir Winston Churchill and his great rallying, buoying speeches, assuring the public of the ultimate victory. Reassuring everyone, that is, except the King. One of the monarch’s primary constitutional functions is to act as a sounding board for the Prime Minister of the day. Because the Sovereign is the one person who is not grubbing for the PM’s job, they are the one person in whom prime ministers can confide their innermost thoughts, and fears. And Sir Winston did that. When he was terrified of the deadly effectiveness of the U-boats, when it looked like we were on the cusp of being defeated in the Battle of Britain, every niggling doubt, every pang of fear that Sir Winston felt, which was suppressed in him and hidden from public view, was poured forth and shared with the King. It was a vital catharsis for Sir Winston but must have had a devastating effect on the poor King’s already delicate nerves. The King chain-smoked his way through those dark days and, by 1951, he had terminal lung cancer – a fact that was kept from him by his doctors. Princess Elizabeth was increasingly helping to shoulder the burden of Her father’s public duties, undertaking a tour of the Commonwealth in 1947. It was in southern Africa, on the occasion of Her 21st birthday, that She famously pledged, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service…” And so She has.
Her beloved father, to whom She was totally devoted, died in his sleep at Sandringham on 6th February 1952. The new Queen was on another Commonwealth tour at the time, and was staying in a tree house in Kenya when She learned that She had acceded to the throne. She was accompanied, of course, by her husband – HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, the former Prince Philip of Greece – whom She had married in 1947, having first met him in 1934 at a family wedding. She saw him again in 1939 when he was a dashingly handsome young naval cadet at Dartmouth and She was but an 13-year-old girl. She was accompanying Her parents, who were visiting the Royal Naval College and was immediately smitten with the 18-year-old sailor and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, has never loved anyone else in Her entire life. The two wrote to each other throughout the Prince’s noble wartime service in the Royal Navy – including active service in the Mediterranean, during which he saw action in the Battle of Crete, was mentioned in dispatches during the Battle of Cape Matapan, took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily, and was present for the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. The young, infatuated Princess Elizabeth kept a photograph of the Prince on her mantelpiece. When her governess, Marion Crawford, suggested it wasn’t a good idea as it might prompt gossip, the Princess undertook to remove the portrait. A short time later, Miss Crawford returned to find that the picture had indeed been removed and replaced by a new photograph of the Prince in uniform, sporting a full set of naval whiskers. “There you are, Crawfie,” said Princess Elizabeth. “I challenge anyone to recognise him now!”
Despite some initial reluctance on Her parents’ part, and some snobbishness within the British Establishment, the Queen and Prince Philip were married and their marriage has been an exceptionally long and happy one. After 70 years together, they will celebrate their Platinum Wedding Anniversary in November this year. As She declared on their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1997, Prince Philip has been Her “Strength and stay”. They have four children, eight grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.
I am reluctant to talk in too much more detail about events after 1945 because, if you are watching “The Crown” on Netflix – and if you have not then I would strongly urge you to do so – I would not want to ruin it for you! But suffice it to say, the Queen came to the throne as a tender girl aged just 25. She is now 91 and, in all that time, has barely ever put a foot wrong. This Sapphire Jubilee adds yet another remarkable milestone to the list of milestones achieved during the long reign of our remarkable Queen. For those of us who have grown up during Her reign and have known no other monarch – which is probably most of us in this room! – She is the embodiment of selfless devotion, dutifulness, dignity, and a calm unflappable Britishness. Her steady leadership – I was about to say ‘strong and stable’ but thought better of it! – has provided all of us with an invaluable sense of continuity and security. In an ever-changing world, She has been constant as the Northern Star. She has weathered dramatic political, social, and technological changes with incredible poise and stoicism. The Queen is governed, not by divine right but by a divine vocation and we are very, very lucky to have Her.”