The words of the British Queen, King Philippe of Belgium and Queen Margrethe II of Denmark were echoed throughout Europe and around the world. Their messages have resonated far greater than the words of any prime minister.
The British Queen’s address to the nation evoked huge interest, respect and widespread appreciation. Nearly 24 million people in the UK watched her deliver the four-minute speech, which paid tribute to National Health Service and other key workers, thanked people for following government rules to stay at home and promised ‘we’ll meet again’.
Her words were greeted with almost universal praise from politicians, press and the public alike. But what made it so special? Who advises the Queen on such occasions? And what does it tell us about the monarchy – what can monarchs do that political leaders cannot?
It was special because of its rarity – this was only the fourth occasion on which Elizabeth II has addressed the nation other than in her annual Christmas message. All have marked particular national moments: war in Iraq, the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, her thanks for the celebrations for her diamond jubilee. In different ways they bring the nation together – her heartfelt address before Diana’s funeral was especially effective in bringing her people to understand why she had prioritised consoling her bereaved young grandchildren.
The coronavirus speech – a little over 500 words – came invested with the authority of someone able to draw on long personal experience of the country’s trials. Instancing her own message as a 14 year-old to child evacuees wrenched from their families in 1940 was but one way of giving the speech a depth of field to which no politician could aspire.
The Queen’s use of the words ‘We’ll meet again’ – the popular anthem of the second world war – was a masterstroke. It drew on deep wells of public memory, emphasised the nature of the present peril, but avoided the populist and lazy rhetoric of mentioning war itself.
The world is familiar with the Queen as head of state of the UK and numerous other countries: this was an occasion when she spoke as head of the British nation. The former role is formal, correct and bloodless. The latter requires emotional intelligence and a sense of personal connection with all citizens which enables the Queen to reflect the best of the nation back to itself.
The speech will have been the product of consultation between the Palace and the government. The Sunday Times followed the briefing available at the time, which was that the initiative was Number 10’s alone. With the benefit of longer to report the story, its sister paper The Times explained the outcome was the result of a more complex interaction. The Queen was in charge. Number 10 and the Palace would have consulted and early drafts exchanged, but the final product would have been the Queen speaking in her own right.
British monarchs have been determined to protect their political neutrality, a feature which the Constitution Unit’s forthcoming book The Role of Monarchy in Modern Democracy identifies as crucial to the survival of all the European monarchies. The Queen is not alone: the existential threat of the coronavirus has caused all European monarchs to make national addresses to comfort their people, support hard pressed public services, and reinforce healthcare messages.
Messages across Europe
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Styles differ: of the various addresses made in Europe from the middle of March, King Philippe of Belgium stressed personal responsibility. Delivering his speech the day after the country entered lockdown on March 17, Philippe said: ‘We have to do this for ourselves, but also for others and especially for the vulnerable among us’, concluding that: ‘The current situation reminds us of our vulnerability, but at the same time it brings out our strength.’
Also speaking last month, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark’s message tended to the hortatory, spelling out the steps her compatriots were required to take and urging them to comply: ‘Right now we have to show our togetherness by keeping apart.’ King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands emphasised problems of isolation: ‘We can stop the loneliness virus’, while King Harald V of Norway recognised anxiety plus the need to support preventive policies with kindness.
The King of Spain’s consoling and supportive message was greeted with the banging of pots and pans by separatists in Catalonia and elsewhere. The Swedish King’s address was issued on the same day as Britain’s and walked carefully in support of Sweden’s limited social distancing policy.
All addresses were supportive of healthcare and other professionals and offered comfort to the isolated, the ill and the bereaved.
Ties of history
How effective are such addresses? The huge number of people watching the British Queen’s speech live provide the answer. So also does the commentary from the UK’s neighbour France, where seasoned observers in the republic watched the Queen’s speech with envy and admiration. Indeed, commentators from the ‘serious’ French press indulged in almost purple passages of appreciation. David Brunat, in Le Figaro, remarked of the address’s style:
It is a manifest and majestic composure (that good composure which could not lie), a phlegm which is not only British, not simply monarchic, but which belongs properly to this queen whose character and destiny were forged in the face of war, blitz, bombs, the struggle for freedom.
They recognised that compared with a republican president there is a direct link between the sovereign and her people which is above politics. In part it comes from the Queen’s own longevity, but also from the historic depth of the monarchy as an institution.
The press in other countries made similar points. The Italian Corriere della Sera called the address ‘historic’, while Katja Majboon in Denmark thought that because of the address ‘there is no doubt that the nation stands together’.
In Germany, Anna Ernst in an article headed: ‘How the Queen unites her people’ compared the broadcast to a Papal address. There was similar appreciative coverage in other European countries. But perhaps the deepest understanding was registered in the French press, a country after all with a long if secret regard for the British monarchy.
The British Queen has again demonstrated that monarchy is entirely compatible with democracy. This is because it can add a layer of non-political leadership to the quotidian but vital struggles of politics. Whereas politics is about government, modern monarchy concerns the state of the nation. No prime minister can do what a nonagenarian – dressed in the colour of hope, as a French journalist pointed out – chosen to represent British society is alone capable of doing when the nation faces an existential threat.
This remains true even in the face of such recent family difficulties as those involving Prince Andrew and Prince Harry. Such misfortunes allow people to identify with the Queen’s common humanity and reinforce appreciation for her ability to rise above personal difficulties. In turn, such attributes make the more credible her sympathetic and bracing encouragement at a time of national emergency.
• Bob Morris is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL and Robert Hazell is a Professor of British Politics and Government & Director of the Constitution Unit at UCL. This article first appeared at theconversation.com.