The text of Sir John Major’s article on HM Queen Elizabeth II, published by The Sunday Mail on Sunday 6 September 2015.
SIR JOHN MAJOR:
Princess Elizabeth was not born to be our Monarch: it was fate that made her so. When her uncle Edward VIII abdicated, her much loved father became King George VI, and she became heir to the throne.
In 1952, by the age of 25, the young Princess had become Queen. On that day few, if any, could have imagined that she would still be on the throne 63 years later, having surpassed Queen Victoria as the longest-serving Monarch in 1,000 years of our history.
Throughout her adult life, the Queen has dedicated herself to public service. You have to be aged over 70 to be able to recall any other face on our banknotes and postage stamps; and of the seven billion people in the world today, only one billion have known another British Monarch.
She is the most widely travelled head of state in history: indeed around the world whenever anyone refers to ‘the Queen’, they mean our Queen. Her 63 years on the throne is, quite simply, an awe-inspiring achievement.
When she took the Coronation Oath in 1953, the United Kingdom was still emerging from the aftermath of the Second World War. Her people had not forgotten the sacrifices of war. Some were still grieving for those who had perished, yet – with characteristic British spirit – they were determined to pull together to lift the nation out of its economic and social gloom. The Coronation inspired the British to put the grim days behind them.
Hundreds of thousands lined the streets and many millions more crowded into the homes of neighbours to watch the procession and ceremony on small, flickering black-and-white television screens.
Street parties celebrated the dawn of a second Elizabethan era and small children clutched treasured Coronation souvenirs. It was a time of hope and cheer – a new start – and no one who took part in the events of that day will ever forget them.
The privations following war were easing, but far from ended. As a ten-year-old boy, I confess that one of my own personal highlights of 1953 was the end of sweet rationing – followed closely by eggs and sausages. For others, the beginning of Coronation year was less happy, as floods ravaged the east coast and caused huge devastation.
But mostly it was a year of hope and triumphs. On the very morning of the Coronation, news came through that Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had reached the peak of Everest.
Some sporting heroes achieved lifelong ambitions. After 28 years of trying, Sir Gordon Richards finally won the Derby on Pinza. Stanley Matthews led Blackpool to victory over Bolton in the most famous FA Cup win of all time. And Len Hutton’s England team regained the Ashes at The Oval after years of Australian domination.
Popular culture changed our world: James Bond made his debut in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, while Bill Haley and the Comets introduced us to rock and roll music. It would be another ten years before we heard of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and then only on a mono record player.
In the home, very few people knew the luxury of vacuum cleaners or washing machines, let alone tumble driers. Fewer than ten per cent of households possessed a refrigerator, and although the Coronation produced a surge in sales, there were only around 1.5 million households with a television, with BBC1 being the only channel, and the black-and-white image barely visible through the fuzzy screen. It would be another 15 years before we would see anything in colour. As for mobile phones and internet, such things would have been beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
For those of us who lived through this time, it seems like another age altogether.
Overall, throughout the Queen’s reign, we in the United Kingdom have been lucky. We have known peace above war; prosperity above austerity; and, whatever hardships some may still face, we enjoy a quality of life in 2015 that is immeasurably better than it was in 1953.
The Queen is as popular and revered today as when she was crowned, despite living through a world of enormous change.
Since her Coronation, Man has walked on the Moon and explored far-away planets. The world’s population has more than doubled. Life-spans have dramatically increased as – for most, but not all – living standards have risen beyond any expectation.
Around the world, politics and economics have shifted the global order. Change in every sphere of life shows no sign of stopping. Even the Royal Family – at the behest of the Monarch – has evolved. But amid all the change, the Queen has remained a constant – both here at home and overseas – for it is not only the people of the United Kingdom she serves: she is Queen to more than two billion people around the Commonwealth.
At the time of her Coronation there were only seven nations in the Commonwealth. There are now 53. No one should underestimate the Queen’s dedication to, and affection for, her Commonwealth family. When consulted about how best to mark her Diamond Jubilee year of 2012, the Queen did not want memorials to commemorate the past; she wished to create a much more human legacy for the future. Thus, The Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Trust, of which I am chairman, was founded.
With her active approval and support we have established two Commonwealth programmes: to end avoidable blindness; and, each year, to identify a group of young leaders who we hope will play a significant role in the future of their own nations and others. This is but one illustration of the Queen’s support for the Commonwealth, and her central role as its head.
I attended the first award ceremony for these young leaders, which took place at Buckingham Palace last June.
As each winner approached the Queen to receive their medal – many in national dress – I saw the future of the Commonwealth before me: beaming faces, bursting with pride as they represented their own home territory, full of hope, positivity, and the will and wish to work together in the name of their Queen. It was a truly moving occasion, the memory of which I will long cherish.
The core of the Queen’s life – apart from family and long-standing friends – has been duty. Almost every day since her accession, she has received and read State papers. Each week she meets her Prime Minister in a private audience attended by no one else (except, perhaps, a few corgis).
No notes are taken, no reports made, no subject is off-limits – and its privacy is total.
The Queen’s first Prime Minister was Winston Churchill: it would be another 16 years before David Cameron was born. As one of the 12 who have occupied that office during her reign, I can say in all truth that – on matters of State – there is no one whose personal judgment I would value above that of the Queen.
It is that unique, informed, experienced, yet impartial insight which is so valuable to the Government of the United Kingdom, and although it is a crucial aspect of her duties as Monarch, it is one which remains largely unknown.
The Queen does not involve herself in party politics, but may well offer counsel – perhaps through well-directed questions – that any Prime Minister would be foolish not to consider with care. All of them soon learn that the Queen, far from being cut off from her people, is very much aware of the shifting tides of public opinion – indeed often ahead of it.
Beyond her duties, the Queen has a private hinterland. No one – apart from her family and close confidants – can truly claim to know her thoughts and wishes. In addition to her expanding family, her affection for dogs and passion for horses is well-known – and widely shared across every part of our country. No one who has seen her walking her dogs in the early morning rain at Balmoral, or watching her horses race at Ascot, can doubt how deep, or how genuine, these interests are. When her horses win, her joy is absolute.
While we honour this historic landmark, we must not overlook the service of the Duke of Edinburgh, who gave up a promising naval career to marry the young Princess Elizabeth.
Through 67 years of marriage, he has been an unfaltering and indefatigable support to the Queen: a pivotal part of our ship of state. At the age of 94, he continues to play an important role in public life and, I believe, is held in greater affection today than ever before.
How does one sum up our remarkable Monarch? Compassionate, shrewd, well-informed, pragmatic and wise, with an unshakeable commitment to duty – and a great sense of humour.
Throughout her reign she has led by example and served our country well. She has entrenched a popular Monarchy so firmly in the affections of our nation that even the most hostile critics have been silenced.
In an egalitarian age, this is an extraordinary achievement. As a nation we have been very lucky: in a world of change – the pace of which is often bewildering, even frightening – the Queen has provided a stability that is comforting and true.
Nearly 70 years ago, the then Princess Elizabeth broadcast a message to the Commonwealth in which she pledged: ‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service…’
In that, and so much else, HM Queen Elizabeth II has never failed us.