Queen praises the people, if not the government, and pulls off a tough gig


Now we know just how serious things are. The UK has just wheeled out its biggest gun. The Queen has only ever given an unscheduled TV address to the nation on four previous occasions, either when the nation or the royal family itself was under threat. And as sure as hell Her Majesty wasn’t about to update us on Prince Andrew handing himself over to the FBI or Harry and Meghan’s ongoing flat hunting nightmare; this could only mean the country was in a coronavirus crisis.

Keeping one hand firmly clasped around her wrist and her body a safe distance from a lone BBC cameraman dressed in a hazmat suit – there’s no shortage of personal protective equipment in Windsor Castle – the Queen, interspersed with footage of NHS workers and the wider general public, spoke to the country from her study. Wisely, she kept it short and sweet. This wasn’t a Christmas message when half the country would be pissed and the other half wouldn’t be listening. Now every sentence would be picked over and every word would count.

The Queen began by acknowledging the challenges everyone was facing: death; financial hardship (some more than others, when it comes to the royal family); and separation, before going on to praise the selflessness of those in the NHS and other frontline emergency services. She then said how much she hoped people would maintain the self-sacrifice, self-discipline, compassion and sense of humour needed to defeat the illness.

On the hottest weekend of the year so far, this rang a little hollow as most of the country appeared to have gone outdoors with the sole purpose of snitching on any people they came across who weren’t keeping the appropriate safe distance from one another. B&Q have had a massive run on tape measures in the past week. It won’t be long before there’s also a black market in tasers to take out sweaty joggers.

After a nod to the Commonwealth and the global nature of the pandemic – this wasn’t the plucky Brits taking on the might of Nazi Germany singlehandedly in 1940 – the Queen mentioned a previous address she and Princess Margaret had made to the nation in 1940. Still, she could be forgiven the solipsism as she had done her bit during the second world war, having spent the latter years of the war driving military trucks. As yet there were no promises to turn any of the royal palaces into field hospitals or emergency supply depots, though she might be holding that in reserve for another day.

The Queen ended with a promise that better days would one day return and that in the meantime we should hold our nerve and do our best to be the generation of which future ones would be proud. We can but hope. She even came over a bit Vera Lynn, promising us “we’ll meet again”. Only without the singing. Small mercies. Maybe next time. Given the circumstances, it had been more or less a pitch perfect speech. After all there’s only a certain amount a head of state can say at times like these.

But one thing was notable by its absence. Although it’s her job to be apolitical, there was no mention of the government’s efforts or requests to follow official advice. Her Maj still hasn’t forgotten how she was used, and made a fool of, by Boris Johnson over the prorogation and pointless Queen’s speech. In Boris, she doesn’t trust. But then who does?

The subtext was unmistakeable. If the country was to survive, it would do so through the collective resolve of its people, not through a government that had been slow to react and was still making promises it did not know it would be able to keep. And with that she faded out after little less than four minutes.

Throughout, her face remained more or less expressionless – inscrutability to hide the pain – but she had done what was required. Simply by being there, she had shown she cared. She had provided the clear moral leadership that many politicians have failed to provide. For some people nothing she could have said would have been enough, while others would have taken comfort. Most people probably wouldn’t have cared much either way. But it was a necessary rite of passage. And a tough gig when underneath you’re just as scared – if not more so, given her age – as everyone else. There’s no disguising it: the Queen’s a class act.