‘My people throughout the world’
This week Queen Elizabeth the Second, now 87, will give her customary Christmas broadcast. Every year she tells most Britons what they want to hear: that they are still great. And she is given much love for that.
That love is said to have been hard won. A few of the books written about Queen Elizabeth’s reign detail a marriage that went sour, at least for some years, because of her husband Prince Philip’s adultery. Nearly all books point to a disciplined life of unremitting travel, briefings, lengthy state occasions and unfailing courtesy. They also mention the constant explosions of sexual waywardness of nearly all of her four children and her (temporary) drop in popularity when, after Princess Diana’s death in 1987, she appeared to insufficiently grieve.
The British like to sneer at the claim of American exceptionalism — the “necessary nation,” as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it in a TV interview in 1998. Britain has its own exceptionalism in the form of the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. In this sense, the Queen is a master propagandist.
The royal Christmas broadcast was the brainchild of Sir John Reith, the creator of the BBC, to be a mixture of the romantic and the puritan. It was conceived in 1932 as an address not just to the people of the UK, but to the British Empire at a time when it was being transformed.
The first speech, delivered by the apprehensive King George V, was written by the great poet and novelist of empire, Rudyard Kipling. Addressed to “all my peoples throughout the Empire,” it was a mere two and a half minutes long. The king offered a model of Britishness that his granddaughter has since followed. He said:
“It may be that our future may lay upon us more than one stern test. Our past will have taught us how to meet it unshaken. For the present, the work to which we are all equally bound is to arrive at a reasoned tranquility within our borders; to regain prosperity without self-seeking; and to carry with us those whom the burden of past years has disheartened or overborne.”
In her first broadcast 61 years ago, Queen Elizabeth invoked “the British Commonwealth and Empire, that immense union of nations, (which)…can be a great power for good — a force which I believe can be of immeasurable benefit to all humanity.” The next year, the word “Empire” was dropped for “the Commonwealth,” as an institution “of which I am so proud to be the Head, and which… though rich in material resources, is richer still in the enterprise and courage of its peoples.”
And thus it has continued. In 1955 the queen said, “we must adventure on if we are to make the world a better place. All my peoples of the Commonwealth and Empire have their part to play in this voyage of discovery.” In 1962, she found that “in spite of all the changes of the modern world… the feeling of a special relationship between the ordinary people of the older Commonwealth countries will never be weakened.”
In 1972, the year of her silver wedding to Prince Philip, the queen offered a reflection on marriage and the need for “a deliberate effort to be tolerant and understanding.” The remark was interpreted as veiled criticism of a husband whose aptitude for marriage had not “come easily.”
In later decades, the Commonwealth was no longer an inevitable part of the Christmas broadcast. But it could always be summoned back — as in 2009, when the queen said, “with continuing support and dedication, I am confident that this diverse Commonwealth of nations can strengthen the common bond that transcends politics, religion, race and economic circumstances.”
Every Christmas Elizabeth has given “her people” a vision of themselves as still mighty in a “land of hope and glory.” She describes Britons as wise, tolerant, generous and “undaunted,” no matter how stern the test. A skillful conflation of morality, Christianity, national mission and British courage are still a fine digestif after Christmas lunch.
Elizabeth is instinctively skillful; born into monarchy, bequeathed unlimited power in theory, and none in practice. She has served rather than ruled. Her smile, after nearly 62 years of being flashed around the world, is still warm. Her questions still apparently proceed from real interest and her speeches, usually brief, are devoid of anything that could give offense. She displays an image of the British as they once were, and as they would still like to think of themselves.
PHOTO: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth views the interior of the refurbished East Wing of Somerset House at King’s College in London February 29, 2012. REUTERS/Eddie Mulholland/POOL