"History is now and England". The Queen is now and history. The Jubilee is a time for celebration and merriment. It is also a moment for reflection, and for solemnity. Even those who regard themselves as monarchists often fail to do justice to the resonance and richness of that sacred creed. You will hear people say that a Monarchy saves us from having a superannuated politician as President. Others will add that it boosts the tourist industry. No doubt both are true; they are also beside the point. The Monarchy is not a convenient political arrangement, any more than it is a boost to the balance of payments. It is the ground of our political being. Monarchy is a form of secular transcendence.
It is also a golden thread running through British constitutional history. For centuries, it was a focus of contention. In the Middle Ages, there were dynastic struggles, with regular attempts to dethrone and murder monarchs. There followed the conflicts of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Royalist versus Roundhead, Whigs versus Tories, Hanoverians versus Jacobites. For more than a hundred years, there were battles to decide who should rule, and with what powers. The Whigs won, which was just as well. There ensued a uniquely peaceful constitutional evolution, and a refutation of Luke's Gospel – it was possible to put new wine into old bottles. In periods of uncertainty, rapid change and global conflict, ancient forms could help to guide and stabilise the country. The result was the Crown in Parliament, which Enoch Powell saw as the greatest expression of English political genius. That phrase is easier to incant than to explain, but there is a role for incantation, as for ceremonies and allegiance. We cannot turn our history and our national life into desiccated quantifications. The Crown is romance, and as so often, romance is the highest form of realism.
Apropos of realism, there is an an important point. A generation ago, the Commonwealth was frequently disregarded. To paraphrase Hobbes, it seemed like the ghost of the British Empire sitting crowned upon the grave thereof (that was my naive and immature view; I was not alone). The Queen did value the Commonwealth. She was its head, which involved duties. Our Great and Sovereign Lady does acknowledge one power, under God, which is superior to Her own: duty. When it came to the Commonwealth, duty was pleasure. Her esteem for that institution was the nearest that the Monarch has ever come to expressing a political opinion.
Many politely disagreed, thinking this mere sentimentality. That was even true of Margaret Thatcher. But the other great Lady was making a double mistake. Although she did not realise it, it was she who was the sentimentalist, too caught up in nostalgia for Empire to be aware of the new realities. With the Cold War still in progress, she was also primarily interested in hard power, not soft power. But the 'soft' in soft power should not be confused with sentimentality. The Commonwealth may no longer provide, as the Empire did, coaling stations for a far-flung blue water navy. But it is a means of projecting British influence and British trade. It was not a ghost on a grave; it was an angel in the marble. In an era when everyone is aware of the importance of soft power, we British have to hand a formidable example. The Queen was right. The Commonwealth's detractors were wrong.
No record is kept of the advice which the Queen gives to her Prime Ministers during their audiences. As they are a deux, there would be no-one to do so. Even in an age of leaks, we know nothing about what has been said, which is as it ought to be. But I suspect that over the past sixty years, a very large quantiy of wise counsel has been dispensed – no less wise for often questioning the conventional wisdom.
Sixty years: those who have been tasked with organising the Jubilee pageantry appear to have performed competently. They are entitled to a couple of days leave after their labours. But before they slope off to Hertfordshire or wherever, there is a question which needs to be answered. Silver, ruby, golden, diamond: what comes next? What will the Seventieth be called?
First, however, let us enjoy the Sixtieth. As the Union Flag flutters aloft and the National Anthem rings out below, let the leatheriest old eye mist over. This is a time for rejoicing, and for gratitude.