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Now that it has been revealed—24 hours after the event—that Queen Elizabeth II has spent a night in hospital and was not, as the palace press corps were informed, “resting” at Windsor Castle, there are complaints that, once again, the messaging is bad and making the situation worse.
For sure, trying to conceal the hospital visit just raises the question: what else is not being revealed? And, inevitably, it renews speculation about whether the Queen will finally have to give up her day job.
So it’s important to realize how much the future of the whole shaky edifice of the House of Windsor still rests on the shoulders of the queen alone.
A moment that makes this very clear came in May. Just a month after Prince Philip died, the queen was driven from Windsor Castle to Parliament to deliver the speech that opens a new session. There were no gloomy widow’s weeds. She wore a lilac dress and hat and looked full of life. As she spoke she did not wear a mask. Prince Charles and Camilla, socially distanced to her left, did. The optics were crystal clear: the widow monarch remained as spirited as her wardrobe, and was reasserting her command. Her long-abiding heir was not about to be enthroned.
A year earlier, before there was any hint that Philip was frail, many royal pundits were confidently predicting that when the queen reached her ninety-fifth birthday on April 21 this year she would finally step down. Charles would become prince regent—in effect, he would be king in all but name, retaining the title until the queen’s death.
She would have none of it. The queen has spent most of the year proving that 95 is the new 65. At times she has seemed as kinetic as the Duracell Bunny. When many lesser mortals are happy to use the pandemic as an excuse to stay out of the office she couldn’t wait to get back to hers. In October alone she carried out 15 formal engagements.
This is in great contrast to what happened in the last year of Philip’s life. The royal couple were in their own version of lockdown, spending part of the summer of 2020 quarantined at Wood Farm, a decidedly non-palatial retreat on their Sandringham estate in Norfolk. With only five bedrooms, this was the smallest of the homes available to them.
There was clearly comfort to be had in leaving the regular world behind–it was evident that the simpler regime allowed them to relive the early years of their marriage before the full weight of the crown fell upon her.
After Philip’s funeral—the one occasion when the queen was seen in black—it was reasonable to assume that she would need some time in privacy to grieve and take stock of how to manage the rest of her reign as she approached the epic milestone of 70 years as monarch in February, 2022.
But, as her appearance at parliament announced, she was in no mood to slow down. It was as though the oasis of serenity had, in fact, re-charged the bunny’s batteries. To be sure, some of her duties were outsourced to Charles and, notably, Prince Edward and his popular wife Sophie. And Prince William and Kate are increasingly performing two essential tasks—taking on more public duties and, with their vitality and approachability, proving to be refreshingly relevant to this century rather than the last.
But the really important point is that queen has always kept a tight grip on her ultimate and unique symbolic responsibility—to fulfill the duties of a head of state, to demonstrate the stability and continuity of a monarchy whose roots date back to the ninth century.
Moreover, it’s evident that she gets a real kick out of appearing as an equal with other world leaders. That was on display in June, at the G7 summit in Cornwall. As she took her seat at the center of a group photograph she audibly asked, “Are you supposed to look as if you are enjoying yourself?” She clearly was.
At a time when the Meghan and Harry saga seemed to be giving the family a bad image in America, the queen used her unique standing to rectify that situation as only she could, as one of head of state to another. She invited Joe and Jill Biden to tea at Windsor Castle where, the president wryly noted, the White House would fit into a courtyard.
This week the palace has been saying that the queen is hoping to be well enough to attend another gathering of world leaders, at the United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow that opens at the end of the month. That is particularly notable because, until now, she has always been content to allow Charles the space to be the monarchy’s voice on all things green. This was in keeping with the edict that the queen should never in public display an opinion on anything, a discipline that she has always firmly adhered to.
In fact, Charles was so keen to assert his own leadership role on this issue that he granted an exclusive interview to the BBC’s environmental correspondent to visit him at the Balmoral estate in Scotland where he boasted that his vintage Aston Martin, given to him by the queen on his 21st birthday (presumably to allow him to feel he was sharing wheels with James Bond), had been converted to run on an organic fuel derived from white wine and cheese whey.
The BBC reporter did attempt to raise the issue of Charles’ carbon footprint, which is more like a carbon bootprint—for example, on one European tour to promote awareness of climate change Charles’ private jet left a print of 52.95 tons.
Charles ducked the question and, instead, mentioned that he had installed solar panels on his London residence and on some farm buildings at his Highgrove country estate. He’s never gone beyond that kind of tokenism—for example, he owns thousands of acres of land in southwest England that could be given over to wind farming but isn’t.
Perhaps mother, like many others, knows the truth, that although Charles was commendably early in warning of the consequences of climate change his deeds don’t match his words. Indeed, the queen’s determination to keep Charles in the wings for as long as possible while she remains center stage suggests that she fears that he falls well short of representing the kind of invigorating generational change the monarchy will need to prove equal to the stresses of the 21st century.
Also, she cannot be amused by the fact that some palace insiders have made clear that Charles intends, on becoming king, to make Camilla his queen, rather than princess consort, as his mother prefers.
There is a sense, though, that the queen’s determination to never let up on being a highly visible head of state is not just about the shortcomings of the Prince of Wales. It must have been galling to her, reading the empty platitudes of the speech handed to her as she opened parliament, that the body she was obliged to acknowledge as “my government” was that led by Boris Johnson, which is setting records for its mendacity and serial incompetence.
The queen has every reason to have developed an après moi, le deluge complex. At the end of this historic reign she can look back on the many pressures that have changed her nation in lasting ways—political, cultural, social and economic. She has not always found it easy to adapt, and has made mistakes of tone in responding to them. But now she appears to be the one stable and steady hand that helps the country to cohere.
A few days ago, the queen gracefully turned down an offer by Oldie magazine, which is dedicated to the spirit of longevity, to give her the annual honor of being “Oldie of the Year.” Her private secretary informed the magazine: “Her Majesty believes you are as old as you feel, as such the queen does not believe she meets the relevant criteria to be able to accept, and hopes you will find a more worthy recipient.” Let’s hope that she swiftly recovers that spirit.
Clive Irving is the author of The Last Queen: Elizabeth II's Seventy Year Battle to Save the House of Windsor