The first British (and Australian) monarch to spend sixty-five years on the Throne, today Her Majesty the Queen celebrates her ‘Blue Sapphire Jubilee’. No public festivities have been planned, either here or in Britain. Her Majesty, it is said, will spend the day in private reflection on her estate at Sandringham.
The Royal Mint is, however, planning a celebratory coin. Fittingly, the reverse bears an image of the Imperial State Crown with the now famous words taken from The Queen’s twenty-first birthday address to the Empire: ‘My whole life, whether it be long or short … devoted to your service’.
The speaker was still the Princess Elizabeth, heiress presumptive, when it was broadcast from the Union of South Africa in 1947. Almost seventy years later, there can be no doubt that the Queen has kept her vow.
The recent Netflix series, The Crown, has brought to life for more recent generations some of the forgotten dramas and tribulations of the years between the Queen’s marriage, in 1947, and her accession to the British Throne in 1952.
For those like me now in their fourth decade, the Queen is the only monarch we’ve known. But for many of us, she’s the only monarch our parents have known too. One must go back another generation again to find those old enough to remember a time when Elizabeth was not queen.
In my family at least, only my great-aunt (89) is left to recall the reigns of George VI (1936–52) and George V (1910–36) who was ‘King of All Britains, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India’ when she was a young school girl.
Proverbially, the Queen is a figure who has ‘always been there’, a ‘constant face in a changing world’.
Thanks to The Crown, however, she has gained a past — and with that a way for many of us to measure something of the extraordinary spiritual strength required to endure with such poise and dignity the dramatic political, social and technological changes that separate the world of 1952 from our own.
It would be foolish to claim that, in all that time, the Queen had not changed. But by and large, her values and her character have been as constant as the Northern Star (or as we might say, the Southern Cross).
Centuries ago, constitutional theorists defended the ‘divine right of Kings’. With Elizabeth II, we must speak of a divine vocation of service.
Yet by historical coincidence, this Royal Sapphire Jubilee falls in the same week as the British Parliament voted to leave the European Union, placing last year’s referendum on the way to acquiring the status of law.
Britain’s 1973 decision to join the European Union (back then the ‘Common Market’) surely ranks among the most significant events of the Queen’s reign.
In 1952, she ascended the Throne as head of a still vital ‘British world’. Hence, the great Commonwealth Tour on which she and Prince Philip embarked eighteen months later.
Arriving through the heads in Sydney Harbour amid a jostling flotilla of pleasure craft, she would alight at Farm Cove on Australia Day 1954 as the first reigning Sovereign to set foot on our sunburnt land. (Watch the full sixty minutes of the official movie reel of the Australian leg of the journey, The Queen in Australia. It really is quite touching for its display of heartfelt, Antipodean loyalty and devotion.)
The British Government’s shock 1961 decision to apply for Common Market membership foreshadowed the imminent end of that world; the United Kingdom’s 1973 entry brought it to an end altogether.
Economically, a tariff wall now separated the Mother Country from her former dominions — compounding the distance created by London’s announced retreat from ‘East of Suez’ — while politically the Common Market’s logic of ‘ever closer union’ diverted British attention more and more towards Brussels.
As James Curran and Stuart Ward show in their Unknown Country, if by this move Britain nationalised British-ness, it made sense that around this time Australia should nationalise the Queen’s title, as she became under the Royal Styles and Act 1973 Queen of Australia.
As other former dominions (‘realms’) followed suit, what had symbolically been a single ‘imperial’ crown signifying the common life of a single family of peoples came increasingly to resemble sixteen separate crowns that happened to be worn by the same person.
This makes it paradoxical that, of all the changes that the Queen has lived to see, that which saw Britain’s emancipation from the Commonwealth and enmeshment in ‘Europe’ should be among those usually given the least consideration.
Before last year’s referendum, it was said that the Queen ‘backed Brexit’.
It’s impossible to know whether this is true.
But what is known is that The Queen did not commit her life to ‘Europe’, to ‘the service of Brussels’ or the ‘great European project’.
Her moving declaration to devote her ‘whole life, whether it be long or short, […] to your service’, was rather a vow made to the people of that ‘great imperial family to which we all belong.’
It’s not difficult to imagine the Queen, in endeavouring to honour that promise, as personally frustrated with six decades of British foreign policy advising her to assent to measures disbanding in substance if not in name the family of nations to which she had made her lifelong pledge of service.
Certainly, way back in 1961, the view of the Australian Treasury was that the breach created by Britain’s embrace of Europe would be permanent – or at least ‘not a temporary one which could easily be reversed.’
The extraordinary thing is that, having in 1973 seen an entirely new era in Britain’s long history begin, the Queen has now lived to see it end.
In her recent Lancaster House speech on Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May made repeated reference to the strengthening ties with ‘old friends’.
Indeed, among the remarkable things about the aftermath of the referendum was how, within days of the vote, ties so rancorously severed in 1973 calmly and naturally reasserted themselves, with New Zealand offering Britain its trade negotiators and Australia a leading candidate for Britain’s first post-Brexit FTA.
Certainly, old habits die hard.
A 2016 Royal Commonwealth Society poll showed overwhelming support among Australians (70 per cent), Canadians (75 per cent) and New Zealanders (82 per cent) for freedom of movement between their countries and Britain. And in a year when Britain was said to be ‘pulling up the drawbridge’ with the rest of the world, some 58 per cent of Britons agreed. A petition in support of that goal has so far obtained 175,000 signatures.
The English word ‘economy’ is ultimately derived from the Greek oikos, meaning ‘house’, ‘household’ or ‘home’. It was this greater British family or oikumene that Britain cast away when in 1973 it severed economic relations with the Commonwealth.
There’s another touching newsreel from the Queen’s first Commonwealth tour.
Called The Queen Comes Home, it starts with classic 1950s trumpet blast as warships of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet escort Her Majesty and Prince Philip back into home waters after their voyage across all three of the world’s great oceans. Later, Sir Winston Churchill joins the Royal Party as Britannia sails past the crowds that have lined the Thames to greet them.
In the final scene, Charles, six, and Anne, and, join their mother and father on the Buckingham Palace.
‘A family reunited at last’, murmurs the newsreader.
Unexpectedly, against all the odds, in the year of her Sapphire Jubilee is a proper family reunion at last on the cards?
Matthew Dal Santo is an Australian historian and foreign affairs writer resident in Europe. He’s a former fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and officer of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. You can follow him on Twitter at MatthewDalSant1.
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