In early May, Prince Charles, the longest-serving heir apparent in British history, read his mother the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament. This was the first time he had represented his 96-year-old mother in this way and only the third time during her 70-year reign that Queen Elizabeth did not deliver the speech. On the earlier occasions, in 1959 and 1963, she had been pregnant with Prince Andrew and Prince Edward respectively. The speech had been read by the Lord Chancellors of the day.
The 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth ll finally had to bow to the ravages of time and pulled out of the ceremony, full of historical ritual and symbolism. By appointing Charles to take her place, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s longest-ever serving monarch, was signalling her succession. Authoritative reports suggest she is very much orchestrating this. Meanwhile, the UK was busy preparing a series of events to mark the Platinum Jubilee of her reign.
Following on from Britain, and the Queen’s long association with so many countries around the world, including in Africa, it is clear that millions everywhere have enjoyed the celebrations that have now taken place, with the Queen being a symbol of benevolent power and grace for so many across the globe.
But what’s she like in private? I can only speak of encounters we had while I was a Cabinet Minister in the UK government. What I discovered was that she had a real sense of humour and interest in people.
Having formed an unusually close friendship with Nelson Mandela, and in the middle of his lively 90th birthday party in 2008, the Queen called him from Buckingham Palace. He was passed the phone. “Hullo Elizabeth, how’s the Duke?” he asked; perhaps only he could have got away with such disregard for royal decorum, and they chatted amiably for quite a while. (When his wife Graça later reprimanded him, he retorted: “Well she calls me Nelson!”)
In 1999, I was asked to accompany the Queen to Maputo to commemorate Portuguese-speaking Mozambique joining the Commonwealth. At the official dinner, she found herself stranded at the end of the top table as the conversation stalled; the Queen was flanked by president Joaquim Chissano and his over-awed young teenage daughter, Martina.
I was sitting next to Martina and discovered that she was sitting school exams the next day; I leaned across to mention this to the Queen. Evidently relieved, she began delightedly chatting with the youngster, even worrying whether she would be in bed on time to be fresh for the exams.
In 2000, the Queen attended a Commonwealth reception in London’s Marlborough House. The secretary general, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, made a special point of welcoming my parents, who had also been invited. Mom and Dad, both anti-apartheid activists in Pretoria in the 1960s, when both were jailed, issued with banning orders and then forced into exile, were passionate republicans.
They had accepted the invitations on the basis they wouldn’t be required to meet the Queen. But, mischievously, I told her they were present and she asked to meet them in an ante-room where she was receiving certain guests; they were dutifully well-behaved, as they were when greeting Prince Charles.
Also present was Meredith Burgmann, then a senior parliamentarian in the New South Wales legislature, but when we had first met in 1971, she was also a militant and also, like me, was arrested in the anti-apartheid struggle but in her case in Australia. What the Queen quite made of us, who knows!
Model of courtesy
She was always a model of courtesy and never ceased to amaze me with her patient serenity, diligence and willingness to engage. Throughout my years in government, between 1997 and 2010, she was hardly a young woman, yet coped extraordinarily well with a relatively punishing schedule.
Pretty sharp at keeping abreast of events and politics — often using the informal chat after Privy Council meetings to catch up — she enjoyed a bit of political gossip. When I was negotiating the 2007 peace settlement that brought old bitter enemies to share power in Northern Ireland, she asked for a personal briefing, and the two of us met alone. She listened with real interest, asking various well-informed questions.
On occasion, she also revealed a wicked sense of humour. The Queen’s Speech is always delivered in the House of Lords and the ceremony is replete with tradition, custom and ritual. It is written by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet on goatskin vellum and presented to the monarch by the Lord Chancellor, who extracts it from a satchel-like pouch suspended from his waist.
In 2003, as is traditional, after disrobing at the end of the speech and before departing parliament, she shook hands with the Lord Chancellor, the Lords Chief Whip and me as Leader of the House of Commons; we were lined up in a little row and it was live on television.
When it came to my turn I tried to lighten what was a stuffy ritual by asking what she would have done if the pouch had been empty? She paused for a second, then gave a conspiratorial smile: “I would have had a cunning plan!” TV commentators and viewers wondered what the unprecedented ‘off-mike’ amusement had been about.
Her sense of mischief was also evident in Buckingham Palace at the retirement party for her then private secretary, Sir Robin (now Lord) Janvrin. In a witty speech, he said how difficult it had been to find a suitable time to fit in the occasion since the Queen was always so terribly busy. “And whose fault do you think that is?” she interjected, leaving us guests collapsing with laughter.
The Queen had, it seemed to me, one of the most tiresome duties to perform swearing in new Privy Counsellors or Cabinet post-holders (every time you moved a Cabinet job or were newly appointed after an election, the same routine was followed). It must have happened to me around 10 times.
Half an hour before my induction at the Palace on 18 July 2001, I had a rehearsal at the Privy Council Office. The procedure seemed medieval and probably was. The full, stilted ceremony was normally at Buckingham Palace (though it could be at Windsor Castle, Balmoral or Sandringham if the Queen was in residence).
First, you went and stood before the Queen and knelt awkwardly down on one knee on a footstool covered in maroon velvet, and either swore your loyalty to Her Majesty on the Bible, or in my case affirmed it. Then you stepped forward and knelt again on a second, slighter higher footstool and took her outstretched right hand in your right hand and kissed it (just brushing it with your lips), before standing, stepping back and bowing or curtseying, to make way for the next person. But no matter how many times she performed the ceremony, she never looked bored and always did it with good grace as she knew it meant so much to the person being honoured, who would treasure the memory.
One of my last duties as the Cabinet Minister for Wales, just after Labour’s election defeat in May 2010, but before a new government had been formed, was to attend a meeting of the Privy Council at Buckingham Palace, the Queen sitting, the rest of us ministers standing in line, as is always customary.
She peered at an agenda item requiring her to sign the Red Meat Industry (Wales) Measure 2010 and looked up quizzically at me. After the formalities, when she traditionally turned to us for a chat, she asked what it was about.
“To ensure Wales has the very best beef and lamb,” I explained.
“Well, I had some lovely beef and lamb in north Wales during my visit a few weeks ago,” she replied.
“I am sure — and the weather was nice. I was up there election- campaigning during your visit.”
She nodded. “We went by [royal] train. It’s wonderful to take your home with you. Better than hotels,” she said, adding wistfully, “people cannot take us in their houses these days.”
She was in impish mood, smiling and enjoying the gossip. Talk turned to the 24-hour TV media camped outside Westminster, where Tory leader David Cameron was trying to assemble a majority of MPs to form a government; one of my Cabinet colleagues moaned about the intrusiveness of helicopter camera shots.
“Yes, they had television pictures from above of me going in my door!” Her eyes were twinkling. “My press officer complained about my security. Actually, I think it infringed my human rights!” she giggled, as we joined her in laughter.
Always a model of protocol, duty and formality in public, Queen Elizabeth can be extremely engaging in private. All reasons, no doubt, why — and despite growing anti-establishment feeling in the UK — a recent poll showed 60% still favour continuation of the monarchy. And as the celebrations of her Platinum Jubilee unrolled, huge numbers at home and abroad joined in to wish a long life to perhaps the best-loved public figure in the world – further testimony to her enduring appeal. DM
This article was first published in the New African Magazine