A brilliant reign: Queen Elizabeth at 60 years on the throneCONRAD BLACK
It does not seem like 60 years ago that my late brother said to our half-asleep parents as we departed early for school: "There was a bug in my cereal, and by the way, the King is dead."
A much admired man, only 56, there were some comparisons between George VI and then U.S. president Harry S. Truman, as men who had not sought the greatest offices for which they were eligible, neither expected nor wished them, but acquitted them admirably when they were thrust upon them.
In other respects, King George VI more resembled Truman's illustrious predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, patrician, even an aristocrat, but stricken by polio that deprived him of the use of his legs at the age of 39; as the King had largely overcome a severe speech impediment, a stutter that in his youth, and as Duke of York, sometimes prevented him from uttering a complete sentence in a feasible time. The King, like Roosevelt before the onset of his illness, had been a fine athlete, appeared with distinction on the centre court at Wimbledon in the 1920s. And though FDR moved awkwardly, once before a microphone, he spoke always with apostolic confidence and mellifluous virtuosity, a very civilized, but almost unanswerable demagogue.
These great personalities of the thirties, and of the war, including Winston Churchill, (then returned to his second, Indian-summer term as prime minister of the U.K.), were in the lore constantly talked and reminisced about by parents and other adults in my early years, as another great war leader, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared to seek the succession to Roosevelt and Truman.
Suddenly, the monarch — and Canada was much more fixedly and unambiguously a monarchy then — was a 25-year-old woman who had been on Empire rounds when the death of her father brought her abruptly back to bear the crown and orb and scepter of what was still the world's largest empire, despite the independence of the Indian countries (India, Pakistan, Burma, Ceylon, Nepal, and later Bangladesh), and the independence of Israel. The United Kingdom was still the third member of the war-time Big Three, though Churchill, Stalin and Truman or Eisenhower were not to meet as a group again.
Less than a year before, my mother took my brother and me to the front of Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto to wave as Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip drove in an open car up Bayview Avenue. And the following year, they took us to the coronation, an unforgettable experience for young boys, on the world's largest ship, the Queen Elizabeth, to still bomb-damaged London. They seemed, at first sight in Toronto, and two years later at her formal accession, a very attractive and gracious couple, and so they have always remained, publicly, and occasionally privately, as it has been my privilege to observe, these 60 years.
The Queen has an outstanding record of absolutely unblemished service, through tumultuous changes and always having to endure suggestions of impending obsolescence — not just of the monarchy itself, but of its various separate functions, especially the ambiguous positions of head of the Commonwealth and supreme governor of the Church of England.
In this present time of glaring, intrusive, nasty media, it is hard to imagine the proportions of the Queen's achievement in serving 60 years, every one of them as one of the most prominent and publicized people in the world, without one gaffe, one embarrassing photograph, one injudicious utterance or slip on a banana peel, literal or metaphoric.
It is not that critics were unable to find fault with her. It would not be fair to say that Queen Elizabeth possesses the style or panache of her great grandfather, King Edward VII, or even of the Spanish monarch, King Juan Carlos II. Nor has she conducted her office with transports of imagination.
When Lord Carrington, British high commissioner in Australia in the 1950s, suggested she buy a farm on the border between New South Wales (Sydney) and Victoria (Melbourne), keep some race horses there and enter them in local races, she declined. When, as foreign secretary at the beginning of the Thatcher years, he proposed the Prince of Wales as ambassador to Paris, with strong secretaries to support him in the famous embassy "bought" by the Duke of Wellington in 1815, she wouldn't hear of that either.
Queen Elizabeth II has personified the British middle-class virtues: moderation, unflamboyant consistency and unflappable reliability. It hasn't always been exciting, and in satirical magazines such as Private Eye and on the BBC, she has paid a price for that and was lampooned for decades for stiff formality and stilted phrases —"My husband and I," etc.
She was overshadowed for nearly 50 years by the Queen Mother as "mother of the nation," and for most of the last decade of those years by Princess Diana as the glamorous and beautiful "People's Princess," naughty, sexy, vivacious, irreverent, but compassionate. Diana sold herself as part Evita and part Florence Nightingale, and as her marriage deteriorated, she was running a parallel monarchy and running public relations rings around the legitimate incumbents. She would not be treated as just a pretty face who would lightly tolerate infidelities, like Queen Alexandra, and was highstrung and difficult herself.
But none of this was the Queen's doing. She watched, pained but dignified, as the Wales' marriage and the Yorks' (Andrew and Sarah) also cracked apart, assisted by hackers, paparazzi and merciless satirists.
Doubtless, if the Queen's largesse had been more abundant, the Duchess of York and a few other royals could have been more selective in choosing their friends and occupations, and the institution of the monarchy would have been spared much embarrassment.
But in important ways, the monarchy too has learned. The Duchess of Cambridge is 10 years older entering that family than was her mother-in-law (Diana), held a real job after graduating from university and comes from a very enterprising, contemporary, stable family. The portents are entirely positive, and there is no doubt that the monarchy survived a significant crisis of confidence and credibility in the last days and dramatic, tragic, end of Diana, who passed at once into legend as one of history's great stars and femmes fatales.
She has endured robust antipodean debate about her status in Australia, where she has reigned for most of its history as an autonomous country. She has had to pretend to be oblivious to the often churlish and gratuitous debate about her position in Canada. And she has been forced to observe, with publicly unexpressed sentiments, the indignities of schism and faddishness in the Church where she presides but, as with the state (but unlike the five popes she has known), without real power or other than discreet, moral authority.
Her subjects, whatever their level of monarchical enthusiasm, might consider, this 60th anniversary, that the Queen has served that whole time often in activities she did not enjoy, solely out of duty. There is no reason to believe that she likes being the subject of harsh debate and performing gruelling sterile ceremonial duties (she is 85). She has done it, done it well, without complaint or comment, because it was her job and was what her ascendants did, and she believes in the continuity of the institution.
There is room for debate about ideal forms of government, but it would be impossible to elect a more selfless, faultless, tireless holder of such a difficult office. God has saved the Queen these 60 years, and hundreds of millions of people have been well served. I still have the black-bordered copy of the late Toronto Telegram announcing the King's death. It was a sad day, 60 years ago, but it has been a brilliant reign.
Conrad Black. "Black on a 'brilliant reign'." National Post, (Canada) February 4, 2012.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post.
Conrad Moffat Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, OC, KCSG, PC (born August 25, 1944) is a Canadian-born member of the British House of Lords, and a historian, columnist and publisher, who was for a time the third largest newspaper magnate in the world. Lord Black controlled Hollinger International, Inc.
He writes a regular column for Canada's National Post and contributes to The American Spectator, National Review Online, The Huffington Post and The Catholic Herald. Conrad Black is the author of A Matter of Principle, The Fight of My Life, The Invincible Quest: The Life of Richard Milhous Nixon, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Champion of Freedom, A Life in Progress, and Render Unto Caesar: The Life And Legacy Of Maurice Duplessis.
Beginning in 2005, Black was the subject of a highly-publicized prosecution in the United States. Having initially faced 17 charges of misconduct and of defrauding the company he led, Hollinger International, of $60 million, he was eventually found guilty of one count of mail fraud and one count of obstruction of justice and sentenced to a prison term of 42 months and a fine of US$125,000.
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