“My Lords and members of the House of Commons,” Her Majesty the Queen said at the State Opening of Parliament yesterday morning, “My government’s priority is to deliver a national recovery from the pandemic that makes the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before. To achieve this my government will level up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom, supporting jobs, businesses and economic growth, and addressing the impact of the pandemic on public services.”
Never mind the two limp tricolons (“stronger, healthier… more prosperous”; “jobs, businesses… economic growth”). Never mind the bromidic language, and the all-purpose vacuity of what is being said. What really makes the heart sink is that deadly political buzz-phrase — “level up” — issuing from her Majesty’s lips. Here is a phrase which we can in no way imagine forms part of her usual vocabulary over breakfast in Windsor Castle.
And, yes, we know that the Queen’s Speech at the State Opening of Parliament is never expected to be in her own words. She is a conduit for the democratically elected will of the people, or some such, as expressed by the government of the day. But still, we could at least pretend. If we can have Her Maj talk about “levelling up” why not have her go the whole nine yards and declare that “my Government got Brexit done; now it intends to introduce world-beating legislation to take back control”?
What she actually did end up saying was bad enough. I doubt seriously, for instance, that her natural turn of phrase would include “measures will be brought forward”, or “legislation to empower the NHS to innovate and embrace technology”. Whoever wrote this lacklustre speech at least spared her “our NHS” — possibly for fear that it could be mistake for the royal “we” and incite an insurrection.
The whole deal with the Queen is that she has, as every student of medieval history knows, two bodies. There’s her royal personage, incarnating centuries of British monarchy — an almost mystical thing. And there’s a nice old lady you might call Elizabeth Windsor, which is the one who wears socks, and suffers from aches and pains, and bleeds when you prick her like the rest of us. The history of her oratory is the history of how she has negotiated between those things. She’s supposed to give a human face to ceremony and a ceremonial dignity to her human person. The two just about overlap, at least rhetorically speaking.
Of course the royal person rather than the private self is to the fore at the State Opening of Parliament. The Christmas message is delivered from a cosy fireside; it is, as much as it can be, personal. The State Opening, on the other hand, is preceded by bugles. Old gents with obscure titles festooned in braid and medals shuffle about in silly hats, Black Rod hammers on the door with a baton, the Mace is formally processed, and she delivers the speech from the Great Throne.
She did her duty, as she always does. But Her Maj, to put it as forthrightly as possible, looked mightily fed up. No attempt was made to conceal that this is a speech written for her, read by her as a matter of constitutional form, and that any enthusiasm she may or may not have for the material is quite irrelevant. This was signalled in the very opening words, which she read glumly from a pamphlet with a brief upward glance at her audience but not even the hint of a twinkle.
Indeed, as she picked her way through this laundry-list of governmental aspirations, she gave every impression that she was reading the words for the very first time as she spoke them. She pronounced the phrase “5G mobile coverage and gigabit-capable broadband” as if making out the semi-legible text of a slightly distasteful translation from a foreign language. “Net zero greenhouse gas emissions” was delivered in such a way as to allow us to imagine her wondering privately, “Who writes this shit?”
That she ends up with such unwieldy political buzzphrases in her mouth is not just the fault of a careless or inept speechwriter; nor even of the unavoidable juxtaposition between a monarch born in the age of the wireless and a government in the age of WiFi. It is a symptom of the widening gap between what the monarch is intended to stand for, and the language in which politics is now conducted. To put it in Bagehot’s terms, as the “efficient” part of the constitutional settlement becomes more technocratic, so the “dignified” part becomes less dignified.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Contrast, for instance, her winning address to the joint session of congress 30 years ago this week. “I do hope you can see me today,” were her first words. Here was a disarming but quite decorous opener. She is not a tall woman, and she was speaking from behind a forest of microphones, and here she gently undercut the pomp of the occasion by reminding us that, as it were, beneath the raiment of a monarch was a real person.
On that occasion she projected respectful sincerity as she said: “I know what a rare privilege it is to address a joint meeting of your two houses. Thank you for inviting me.” She offered a strong and resonant affirmation of national fraternity (gently finessing the constitutional differences) when she said: “The concept so simply described by Abraham Lincoln as ‘government by the people, of the people, for the people’ is fundamental to our two nations. Your congress and our parliament are the twin pillars of our civilisations and the chief among the many treasures we have inherited from our predecessors. We, like you, are staunch believers in the freedom of the individual and the rule of a fair and just law.”
Thirty years on the second body is older, tireder and crosser. We know that the last year or so has made her previous “annus horribilis” look like a walk in the park. Her no-mark cousin has been caught cashing in on his royal links and cosying up to the murderous leader of a foreign power. Her favourite son is spattered with mud, and possibly worse, from his friendship with a trafficker in underage girls. Her grandson has buggered orf to the States and made it known as a parting shot that the Royal Family is an oppressive institution stuffed with racists. And she has just lost her husband of seven decades. It’s fair to assume that Elizabeth Windsor is feeling low in the water; and some of these injuries are constitutional as well as personal.
But the first body — the royal body — must go imperturbably on despite everything. If Elizabeth Windsor could sit down with Oprah and “speak her truth” I suspect she would have some very salty things to say indeed. But she never could, and she never would. This monarch is determined, for as long as she can, and whatever the cost to her soul and peace of mind, to keep the show on the road. It would befit the government to show a bit of respect for that devotion to duty. Sheesh: “Level up.” Give the poor old doll a break.