Elizabeth II’s reputation for restraint means she is given a lot of credit – which was not always true of her predecessors
The announcement that the Queen will be attending a session of the cabinet on Tuesday to mark her diamond jubilee tells us more about the monarch, the cabinet and indeed ourselves than is obvious at first glance. Not so long ago the very idea might have caused uproar, among constitutional purists as well as republicans. It may well do again one day.
The Queen has spent 60 years demonstrating personal restraint and (most of the time) discreet good judgment. That may be why the rightwing press failed to get pompous about her dignity when she did that classy gig with James Bond for the Olympic opening ceremony. She has a lot of credit in the bank.
That was not always true of Queen Victoria, whose reputation for dignity and sagacity came only in great old age after she had spent decades as a mourning recluse following the premature death of Prince Albert, greatly annoying many taxpayers in the process. It was the heyday of post-Cromwellian republicanism, but the Queen’s old age beat them back in the end. It seems to be the case again today.
All the same, the spectacle of the monarch crossing St James’s Park to Downing Street – they can just about see each other when the leaves are off the trees – is freighted with history. We fought so long to assert the authority of elected and accountable government over hereditary autocracy that it is worth taking stock.
Since she took the advice of a handful of Tory grandees (they really were territorial grandees in those days, not simply blokes who owned more than two suits) and asked Alec Douglas-Home to form a government when Harold Macmillan stood down as PM in 1963, the present Queen has largely steered clear of political taint.
George VI blotted his copybook in letting Neville Chamberlain parade on the Buck House balcony after his short-lived deal with Hitler at Munich in 1938. George V had a few close shaves – the budget crisis with the Lords in 1910 was one – and Edward VII pushed his luck occasionally, like his mother. Queen Victoria’s refusal in 1841 to replace her politically unacceptable ladies of the bedchamber – ie aristos who helped her prepare for bed and much else – led to the last monarch-driven resignation of a government.
Tudor and Stuart monarchs exercised personal power, which is why parliament and the army tried and executed Charles I in 1649 when they felt he had committed treason against his own people in waging civil war (twice). But it is also why the Stuarts were recalled in 1660 after Oliver Cromwell’s death: they couldn’t get the republican model to work.
Queen Anne was the last monarch regularly to attend cabinet as Queen Elizabeth will do on Tuesday. Anne wasn’t smart enough to be a serious menace and all her children died young, so parliament decided who they would give the throne to: the Hanoverians who still reign over us.
As politicians steadily threw off monarchical restraint in favour of oligarchy, it reinforced the underlying principle of the revolution of 1688-89 that Britain was a crowned republic – as the French philosopher Montesquieu put it not long after.
So the fact that the Queen is attending cabinet, described in some reports today as a “briefing” (Arggh!!), is a gesture personal to her from a strongly monarchical Tory government whose leader is vaguely related to her via some 200-year-old hanky-panky. But it also underlines how much the weekly cabinet meeting – symbol of collective responsibility – has ceased to be the main instrument of government decision-making.
As the Victorian constitution buff Walter Bagehot might have put it, the cabinet has moved from being an “efficient” part of the constitution to being a largely “decorative” one. This is not the sole fault of Tony Blair and his bilateral habits of conducting business with ministers one-on-one on his No 10 blue sofa. It has been a long time coming. Modern government is too complex, the details too important, for broad-brush debate most of the time: committees, formal and (increasingly) ad hoc are the thing.
Her Majesty will not hear many state secrets or even gossip to share with her spouse when she gets home from No 10. Instead she will receive a present from its members to mark her jubilee. The symbolism of the Tuesday morning parade before the Downing Street TV cameras is largely there to convey continuity and reassurance that the Queen’s government carries on.