When some 35 years ago I was at university, my father, who was at the time an MP, would on occasion invite me, in vacation, to high tea in the House of Commons and get me a ticket for the gallery to watch some major debate. One night after the then Labour government had passed through the Commons some piece of legislation to which he profoundly objected, we found ourselves driving home together after the vote. He was extremely downcast. But our route took us up the Mall and passed Buckingham Palace. The Royal Standard fluttered floodlit over the building in the breeze. He exclaimed suddenly to me. “Good she is in, so all is well with the World”, and finished the journey in perfect good humour.
At the time I was slightly surprised by this example of monarchical beneficence, but after 15 years in Parliament, I know exactly why it worked for him.
Many is the occasion when after vigorous debate in the House of Commons over legislation I have found myself drawn down the corridor to the House of Lords to hear Royal Assent being given to it. In place of noise and polemic, that House is briefly turned into a theatre for the enactment of our constitution. Peers representing all main political Parties, previously at daggers drawn on the measure under debate, are transformed into Lords Commissioners acting for the Queen and clad in ermine, ceremonially indicate her assent, as the Clerk of the Parliaments exclaims in good Norman French “la Reine le veult”.
These two experiences sprang most immediately to mind when I was asked to give this address and my thoughts on this Jubilee. It is sometimes said that the Queen’s role is only a ceremonial one and most of the images we have of her tend to emphasize this aspect. But as is apparent from a Royal Assent, the ceremonial is the outward expression of the exceptional nature of her role as a constitutional monarch, in providing the legitimacy which democracy alone cannot do.
Laws are with all their imperfections just manmade constructs. So, there is in truth little beyond self-interest or perhaps fear of punitive sanction to make us obey them. Experience shows how fragile that acceptance can become and the strife and misery that can result, if government by consent breaks down. That our laws are her laws and not just those made by a group of politicians matters, I believe, a lot.
There are some who may dislike this and see it as a form of deception – an encouragement to an emotional rather than a rational deference to the Rule of Law and democratic principles. But, I hope as a rational lawyer, I entirely disagree.
It is a central feature of our state that every aspect of our governance is carried out in the Queen’s name. Whether it be her judges, her armed forces, her police constables, her civil servants, her parish priests and bishops in England, MPs or indeed most tellingly the Ministers of her government, in terms of our work, we are her servants.
And most of us, most unusually in the modern world are bound to that service by oaths. “I”, swears every judge, “do swear by almighty God that I will well and truly serve our sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth the Second and I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm without fear or favour, affection or ill will”. “I” says the police officer “will well and truly serve the Queen….with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality upholding fundamental rights and according equal respect to all people and that I will to the best of my power cause the peace to be kept and preserved…”. Even I, as her Attorney General, with an ancient oath from the 16th century requiring me to use my cunning to sue the Queen’s process after the course of the Law (cunning at that time just meant skill and not, I am pleased to say, the pejorative gloss it has now), am also interestingly required and enjoined to “duly and in convenient time speed such matters as any person shall have to do in the law against the Queen as I may lawfully do without delay, tracting or tarrying the party of his lawful process…” And finally every Privy Councillor is required by his oath, and amongst a lot else, to do “as a faithful and true servant ought to do Her Majesty..” And when you become a Privy councilor the entire ceremony, including our kissing the Queen’s hand is designed to reinforce that message.
There is thus nothing abstract about the underpinnings of our system of governance. Unlike countries that emphasize the Rights of Man or other written constitutional declarations, our own is based on personal loyalty and service to our sovereign and her commitment to us.
One valuable consequence of this fact is that, unlike most other nation states, we have been able to avoid defining our shared citizenship, on the basis of some common culture. The British are a political nation. Within these islands there has always been diversity and the framework that holds us together is the shared loyalty to the Crown rather than any cultural uniformity. From the Huguenot refugees of the early 18th century, to my Jewish forebears in the 19th, integration and acceptance has gone hand in hand with the ability to have that loyalty rapidly recognized once tendered. Today, as we face unparalleled change through immigration, we are blessed that the short words of the oath of allegiance and the citizenship pledge, enacted routinely in our Town Halls, is all that we have ever had reason to ask of those who wish to share our future and our fortunes.
Our Victorian forebears used to take specific pride in being described as “subjects” rather than citizens. They believed that in their relationship of subjection to the monarch they enjoyed far greater freedom than many who were supposed to hold their freedom as a right, enjoyed at least on paper, as equal citizens. Today that distinction has blurred. But it is a value that lingers. As every British passport bears witness, it is “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State” who requests and requires in the “Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer (her subject) to pass without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary”. Each time it has been suggested that this statement might be removed from our passports there has always been widespread objection.
And that, I suggest, is the best reason for this celebration. Values are not created or maintained by accident. Constitutional experts may distinguish the Crown from its individual holder, but that does not mean that the standing of the holder is irrelevant. All those oaths and ties of allegiance would count for nothing but for the one which the Queen herself took at her coronation, for it is on this that the foundations of our nationhood and of the relationship between government and governed is based.
At her coronation, she swore to govern us according to our laws and customs. She swore that within her power she would “cause law and justice, in mercy to be executed in all her judgments. She swore as a Christian monarch that she would to the utmost of her power maintain the laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel and the Church of England of which she is the supreme governor. As it says on the outside rim of the Coronation crown I have in my pocket today – “Faith and Truth I will bear unto you”
And when she had taken her oath, she was anointed which set her apart and emphasized the sacred nature of her pledges and position and then she had to be acclaimed with shouts of Vivat because our Anglo-Saxon forebears were sensibly determined only to be governed by their consent and not by any assertions of Divine Right – a very English feature.
And, as she said in her broadcast when aged 21, she dedicated herself to our country’s service – similar terms to those enjoined to us in the passage we have just heard read from Luke.
Today, nearly 60 years on, we know that she meant every word she said. And we can also see how through her dedication, her hard work and her faith she has sought to fulfill the terms of her promises, even if the human fallibility of her Ministers may not always match their own aspirations, let alone hers! But just as those great early steam engines could not operate without the crucial and usually tiny component of a “governor” to regulate and maintain the pace and prevent excess, so she has done the same for us.
So we have good cause for jubilation, not just in our homes and on our streets but also in this church where we can give thanks to God for the strength he has given the Queen in her task and for our great good fortune that in the spirit of the reading in the Book of Proverbs she reigns over us and decrees justice for us all.