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: