In praise of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee tour of Britain

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Meanwhile in June, the Queen – now a great-grandmother twice over – offered her own sense of perspective to expectant mothers at their antenatal classes as she opened the new £16.4 million maternity unit at the Lister Hospital in Stevenage.

This whole tour has – presumably deliberately – been a million miles away from the diamond-encrusted ceremony of the State Opening of Parliament and the formality of Buckingham Palace receptions and banquets for visiting presidents and prime ministers, the more usual backdrops against which the Queen makes the news bulletins. The programme to mark the Diamond Jubilee – only three more years to go to depose Queen Victoria from the top spot – has had its whizz-bang moments: the Jubilee Concert, the river pageant, the Service of Thanksgiving in St Paul’s, all clustered together on that specially designated Diamond Jubilee bank holiday weekend in May. But the four months of her tour has concentrated instead on the regular round of ribbon cutting and walkabouts that have been the Queen’s bread-and-butter for the better part of her 60 years on the throne. This year, though, there was a reason in the Diamond Jubilee to sit up and take notice.

Even the most ardent republican cannot but be impressed by the sheer stamina and physical vigour shown by our 86-year-old monarch, not to mention her wisecracking 91-year-old consort. (In Manchester in March, he walked over to a 60 year-old on a mobility scooter and asked, “How many people have you knocked over this morning on that thing?”)

And I would challenge that small minority who would do away with the monarchy not to be even a little bit seduced by that beaming, bright-eyed, slightly guarded smile that we have been seeing so much more regularly since she started this royal progress in Leicester on March 8. When the person you are throwing the party for is so obviously having such a good time, it’s almost impossible not to join in with the fun.

There has almost been an element of surprise in that smile. It is as if the Queen can’t quite believe that this public outpouring of affection and respect is actually for her. She has, as is well recorded, endured darker times, even in her own words an “annus horribilis” in 1992; and over the decades she has grown accustomed to being outshone by younger family members: crowd-pleasing daughters, then daughters-in-law, and now her grandson and his new bride. But this time around, as she has toured all the regions of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there has been no one else the crowds want to see.

Yes, in Leicester, she was joined by the Duchess of Cambridge, the Royal family’s newest star. Prince William shared the podium, too on a damp day in June in Nottingham, when the Duke of Edinburgh was still recuperating from his bladder infection.

And Prince Charles stood at her shoulder as she headed under grey skies at a stately 5mph up the Leeds and Liverpool Canal on a barge to see the £100 million regeneration scheme his charities have championed in the “Weavers’ Triangle” of once-redundant Lancashire industrial land.

Meanwhile, the other members of the Royal family have largely been packed off to tour the Commonwealth (this Jubilee tour, unlike those in 2002 to mark her Golden anniversary, or in 1977 for Silver, has not seen the Queen herself go globe-trotting). And so the cheers and the flowers and the evident warmth have all been for the Queen herself.

“Nobody can beat her,” as her near contemporary 85-year-old Erica Swift put it so succinctly as she waved her flag on that opening leg in Leicester. “I wish her all the best now and for many more years.”

They were nine deep on the approach to Leicester Cathedral when she arrived that day. Three months later, an estimated 35,000 queued from five in the morning to witness her arrival in Nottingham. A medieval monarch could not have expected more. Young and old shared the same enthusiasm. The Olympic champion, Steve Cram, who met the Queen on the North East leg of her tour last week, said afterwards: “I was talking to someone who is 19 or 20 last night and what is so nice is that she was really excited when I told her I was going to see the Queen. It’s testimony to what she still means to people.”

And there has been no tailing-off of interest as other pretenders have arisen to vie for our attention. Indeed, at Corby on June 13, the Queen managed neatly to link the twin themes of this busy year for Britain by including in the Diamond Jubilee itinerary a meeting with a current Olympic medal hopeful, Caitlin McClatchey, at the East Midlands International Pool.

The backroom staff at Buckingham Palace rarely get much praise when things go well, but whoever drew up the programme for this tour deserves more recognition for their labours than the customary LVO (Lieutenant of the Victorian Order) gong that is the usual reward for loyal courtiers. For the mix has been perfect.

There have been self-conscious moments of history, notably the carefully choreographed handshake with former IRA commander, now Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.

While the overall tone has been informal, there has also been enough ceremonial for those keen on it. “Everything we’ve been seeing today,” said one front-row spectator outside Llandaff Cathedral on April 26 when the Queen visited, “the uniform, the fashion, everybody being representative, it’s things we don’t see now. It really stirs you.”

There have been occasions when Her Majesty demonstrated her continuing and future relevance by embracing the future, as when she opened MediaCity, the BBC’s new hi-tech headquarters at Salford. And there have been set pieces where she has updated her own story, and revisited her own history.

So at the Princesshay shopping centre in Exeter at the start of May, she was reunited with some of those who, as children 63 years ago, had assembled in the same place to greet the then Princess Elizabeth when she came in 1949 to encourage rebuilding of the city after wartime damage. Back then there were no mobile phones to record the moment, but this time round everyone seemed to want to capture something for posterity.

There have been indications as well of the moments in her long reign that have clearly made a deep emotional impression on this outwardly

implacable woman. Her visit on April 26 to Aberfan in South Wales to open the Ynysowen Community Primary School is the fourth time she has returned to this former mining village since the tragic day in October 1966 when a coal waste tip slid down the hillside and engulfed the local school and other buildings, killing 144, of whom 116 were children. The monarch is there too, she appeared to be gently reminding us, to share our sorrows as well as our joys.

Sometimes our politicians – and their spin doctors – think that the British public can be manipulated into liking leaders. It may work briefly, but inevitably comes a cropper. And it certainly is not a trick to be spun out over six decades. One lesson of the Diamond Jubilee tour is that we know the genuine article when we see it, but sometimes it can take us a very long time to make our minds up.

The Queen has never been one to play to the gallery, or wear her heart on her sleeve. Stoicism, a sense of duty, soldiering on and keeping your counsel when your family life is imploding are all today regarded as about as unattractive as those sensible old lady shoes with the two-and-a-quarter-inch heels that she always wears.

There have been fluctuations in the public’s affection for her, of course, from initial enthusiasm for the “New Elizabethan Age” to the widespread public discontent that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. But as this four-month-long journey draws to a close, this understated, apparently unremarkable 86-year-old has never been regarded with more genuine affection.

Ipsos MORI reports that nine in 10 of us think she’s doing a great job – the highest total since its polling began. Even Prince Charles – the heir many wanted ditched in favour of his son after Diana’s death – has been pulled up in his mother’s slipstream and now manages to satisfy eight out of 10 questioned. You can see why the Queen has allowed herself so many smiles on this Jubilee tour.

 

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