Longevity, the simple fact of time, gives the Queen an unmatched presence in British life. The way she has personally sought to carry out the role has added power and solemnity to the position. Because she rarely intervenes—and never politically—each time she does carries weight. Last night, she made a special address to the nation for the first time since her diamond jubilee in 2012, itself the first time she had formally spoken out since her mother’s death in 2002. Before that, 1997 was the last time she had done so, because of an event so grave it was deemed necessary—the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. That she chose to again during this pandemic had the perverse effect of making the situation feel even more solemn.
In hindsight, the two weeks of national lockdown preceding the Queen’s address were marked by an unnerving void. The prime minister, even before last night’s news, had been in self-isolation for more than a week after contracting COVID-19. The health secretary had also caught it, along with the chief medical officer—the principal adviser informing the prime minister on his strategy. Meanwhile, the Labour Party was waiting for its interminable leadership process to reach its conclusion. All the while, the death toll was climbing ever closer to the hidden peak. The timing of the Queen’s intervention was crucial.
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Dressed in green and speaking from an ornate study inside Windsor Castle, the Queen set the crisis alongside the national struggle during the Second World War. She said she wanted to offer reassurance that if the country remained “united and resolute,” it would overcome this latest obstacle. “I hope in the years to come, everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge,” she said. It was an old-fashioned call to arms. She finished, though, with hope. Although we will have more to endure in the coming weeks, she said, better days will return: “We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.” The payoff was a conscious nod to what had become the anthem of the Second World War, “We’ll Meet Again,” by Vera Lynn: “Don’t know where / Don’t know when / But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day.”
The Queen is the only public figure able to personally link the current fight against the pandemic to the Second World War, the prior struggle that still defines the country, at least in its own perception. The message was well pitched, nodding to the young and old, frontline and staying-at-home. It cast her as a spiritual leader, more than merely figurative.
The message would soon be overshadowed by the news of the prime minister’s hospitalization, a question mark placed at the very heart of the state’s response to the crisis. Yet, as true as that is, this weekend nevertheless offered a tentative sense that the institutions and positions of state were not jamming, but clicking into gear, even if they remain old, grinding, and archaic. The National Health Service appears to be rising to the task, the military has been deployed, the BBC has found its voice after years of unease, and the political institutions—torn apart by the financial crash, Brexit, and Corbynism—have refound something of a common set of rules and purpose.
The establishment is back. And British politics has some measure of its old self back. Both will be needed again soon, for once this immediate medical crisis is over, an economic one will emerge. Real change may soon follow.