Royal tryst with history

In her 70-year reign, the queen has been a symbol of stability and continuity

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 2 Jun 2022, 11:05 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Jun 2022, 11:09 PM

Britain’s unparalleled ability to stage royal events is on full display during the Jubilee Weekend (June 2-5) to celebrate 70 years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign: such as Trooping the Colour, royal bands, the royal family’s appearance on the Buckingham Palace balcony before millions on The Mall, lighting of beacons across the country and the Commonwealth, music concerts, over 16,000 street parties and blanket coverage.

She acceded to the throne on February 6, 1952, and became Britain’s longest reigning monarch on September 9, 2015, when she overtook her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria (Empress of India), who reigned for 63 years and seven months. And that record may not be her last: if she remains on the throne until mid-2024, she will become the longest-reigning European monarch of all time, eclipsing the 72 years and 110 days of Louis XIV of France.

Widely known and respected across the globe, her reign has been closely chronicled, a witness to momentous changes in all fields. Not one, but several time-lapse videos would be needed to capture the timelines or the change and continuity that unfolded around her over the decades: wars, de-colonisation of the British Empire, political events, technological and other changes, and developments in her family. But all along, she has remained a symbol of reassurance, stability and continuity. There have been 13 prime ministers during her reign, each a stalwart in the cut-and-thrust of politics. The queen, a constitutional monarch who remains politically neutral and whose entire persona is based on betraying no hint of her private political feelings, has a special relationship with the prime minister. She gives a weekly audience to the prime minister, when she has a right and a duty to express her views on government matters. After a general election, the appointment of a prime minister is the prerogative of the Sovereign.

Here is a brief look at her relationship with five prime ministers:

Winston Churchill (1951-55)

Churchill was a formidable presence for the young queen, who remained in awe of the war leader. At their first audience, Churchill told the queen he could advise her from a lifetime of experience, but the time would come when she would advise prime ministers younger than herself from a similar standpoint. So, it has proved. The first of the prime ministers younger than the queen was John Major (Tony Blair and David Cameron were not even born when she acceded to the throne). Once asked which of her prime ministers she most enjoyed meeting, she replied: “Winston, of course, because it was always such fun.” Churchill had great respect for the monarchy. According to Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, the relationship between the two was “one of profound respect and affection”.

During the confidential weekly meetings, there are stories of how the chats stretched from 30 minutes to two hours. So strong was the relationship that she sent him a handwritten letter when he retired, writing that no other prime minister would “ever for me be able to hold the place of my first prime minister, to whom both my husband and I owe so much and for whose wise guidance during the early years of my reign I shall always be so profoundly grateful”.

When Churchill died in 1965, the queen broke protocol by arriving at his funeral before his family. Protocol states that the queen is supposed to be the last person to arrive at any function, but in this instance, she wanted to be respectful to the Churchill family.

Harold Wilson (1964-70 & 1974-1976)

The queen’s first Labour prime minister, Wilson, who came from a lower middle-class background in Yorkshire, held the office for two terms and emerged as one of her favourite prime ministers. Despite his years at the University of Oxford and in the government, he retained a distinctive Yorkshire accent and a more relaxed manner than other prime ministers. Wilson was 10 years older than the queen, much closer in age than her previous prime ministers, which may have helped contribute to their friendly relationship. Wilson enjoyed what he referred to as a “relaxed intimacy” with the queen, who reportedly liked his non-traditional ruling class background and down-to-earth demeanour. Following their first meeting, she reportedly took the rare step of inviting him to stay for drinks, and he was allowed to smoke his pipe during their audiences. Wilson was enormously proud of his association with the queen and even kept a photograph of the two of them in his wallet. Royal biographer Robert Lacey has noted that Wilson persuaded the queen to drop “a lot of stuffy protocol” that had hung around since Queen Victoria’s days. Wilson was often invited to the queen’s picnics at Balmoral with her wider family — a sign that the two had a friendly relationship, which endured despite claims in some quarters of his alleged links with Russian intelligence.

Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990)

Thatcher was the queen’s eighth prime minister and the first woman to hold the office. There were tensions between the two, the most known being a front-page story in The Sunday Times on July 20, 1986. By that time, it was well known that the queen was upset about the rifts within the Commonwealth, with Britain frequently standing alone in its refusal to contemplate sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa. There were also tensions over divisions that erupted within two years of Thatcher arriving in Downing Street: recession; mass unemployment; riots in Bristol, Brixton and Toxteth; homelessness; and renewed tensions in Northern Ireland. The Sunday Times story claimed that the queen privately felt Thatcher’s approach to be “uncaring, confrontational and socially divisive”. The source was the Buckingham Palace press secretary, Michael Shea, but the queen herself was mortified. She rang Thatcher immediately to apologise, and the relationship survived, but historians note that the prime minister did not forget it. Thatcher was also different from previous prime ministers, particularly Conservative ones who were seen as representatives of the upper-class establishment. Thatcher, who described herself as a “plain, straightforward provincial”, regarded the establishment as the enemy. The two never became friends, but the queen attended several events with Thatcher after she left office.

Tony Blair (1997-2007)

Blair was another prime minister with whom the queen’s relationship has been described as “tumultuous”, even though they appeared cordial in public. Deliberations of the weekly meetings between the queen and the prime minister are confidential, but Blair infuriated royal quarters by including some details in his book, A Journey. Their relationship got off to a rocky start when the queen was reportedly offended because Cherie, Blair’s wife, refused to curtsy during their first meeting. Blair then changed the day of the weekly meetings from Tuesdays to Wednesdays, which also altered the queen’s schedule. The queen reportedly put Blair in his place in 1997 when he first became prime minister. According to Blair, “She did say to me that Winston Churchill was the first prime minister that she dealt with, and that was before I was born…So I got a sense of my, er, my relative seniority, or lack of it”. Princess Diana’s death in 1997 was another uneasy occasion. Blair reportedly had to convince her to ditch the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to the popular princess’ death, according to a recent documentary. The queen was initially determined to stick to regular protocols and not show any emotion in public, but she misjudged the public mood and there was an outcry over her supposed hard-heartedness. Blair, who had only just been elected as prime minister, travelled to Scotland to persuade her to come to London and change her approach.

Boris Johnson (2019- )

Soon after returning to Downing Street after an audience with the queen when he was appointed prime minister in July 2019, Johnson reportedly told his staff that the queen had told him: “I don’t know why anyone would want the job”. The British media described it as a gaffe at the start of his tenure, but he was to later apologise to her at least twice: the first in September 2019 when the Supreme Court ruled that parliament had been prorogued at the height of the Brexit rows unlawfully (the queen had prorogued parliament on the advice of the Johnson government); and in February this year, when it emerged that a party was held in Downing Street on the eve of the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip, in April 2021. On May 26, Johnson deployed the full range of his wordsmith skills (he was previously a journalist) to pay tributes to the queen during the Humble Address to Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee in the House of Commons: “She has seen an empire transformed into a happy Commonwealth that countries are now bidding to join. And in the thousand-year history of this place no monarch has seen such an increase in the longevity or the prosperity or the opportunity or the freedom of the British people; no monarch has seen such technical advances many of which British scientists played a leading part; from the dawn of the internet to the use of the world’s first approved Covid-19 vaccine. No monarch by her efforts and dedication and achievement better deserves the attribute of greatness and for me she is already Elizabeth the Great.”

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