The Queen’s speech at the State Opening of Parliament earlier today is being referred to as “somber” by the media . The tone isn’t surprising given recent events in the UK, from the terror attacks in London and Manchester to the Grenfell Tower fire to the recent election that only increased political uncertainty. Consideration of the public mood was apparent even in a purely Royal celebration at Trooping the Colour on Saturday via the Palace’s statement beforehand.
So, there was little chance this speech was going to strike a tone of overt optimism, but it was critically important this year, not least of which is because it was announced a few days ago this session of Parliament will last two years instead of one. The move is meant to ensure there is no disruption to a successful Brexit, but it also highlights the actual weight of the crown in the midst of chaos.
The strength of the Queen’s position stems from a variety of factors, not least of which is her age and heightened popularity coming off of her Diamond and Sapphire Jubilees, but that’s honestly the least of it. The crux of the matter is Brexit, of course. Economic and diplomatic uncertainty, taken alongside rising Western populism and an election that did more harm than good, and you have a need for consistency. Who is the grown up at the helm of the ship?
Well, the Queen, of course. Now, that’s not an opinion on the validity of a British monarchy, but it is an acknowledgement of the role a modern monarch can play – and one that Elizabeth II has fulfilled time and time again over the course of her reign. Her experience and consistency provide a sense of stability, whether it’s consciously understood at any given point or not. No, she will never use the “nuclear option,” but nevertheless she has it.
The significance of the Queen’s words today is more than a little ironic. After all, this event was meant to be Prime Minister Theresa May’s political coronation. Instead, today’s speech, which outlines the government’s agenda, wasn’t particularly potent. There were no policy surprises, no mention of the more controversial aspects of the Conservative party’s platform and, significantly, no mention of a planned visit from U.S. President Donald Trump, the invitation to which caused mass outrage when it was announced back in January. And that gap is notable taken alongside reference to King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia’s planned visit next month.
Brexit, understandably, was front and center, and while the meat of that transition will come from the hammering out of trade deals and immigration and economic policy, the Royal Family is also playing a role. While the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh no longer travel abroad, other members of the RF have been deputized not only to the usual Commonwealth suspects, but to Britain’s European neighbors. March saw the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Paris, while the Prince of Wales toured Romania solo and then met the Duchess of Cornwall in Italy and Austria in April. William and Kate will be in Poland and Germany from July 17-21 and there are rumors of a later trip to Norway, per comments William made at the Buckingham Palace Garden Party last month. And while outside of Europe, obviously, planned trips to Canada and China from Charles and the Princess Royal support Britain’s role on the global stage, while a rumored first-ever trip from the BRF to Israel would be ground breaking.
But if today was not particularly pleasant for May – and it wasn’t, Jeremy Corbyn threatened beforehand to vote against the speech and offer amendments – it did highlight yet another coming change in optics. Alongside the Queen wasn’t Phillip, but Charles, her heir. The move may have been less rooted in symbolism than it appeared, since it’s been confirmed Phillip is being treated for an infection, but it’s been widely reported that Charles is in favor of a slimmed down monarchy. Today showed just that, for in addition to not featuring Phillip or Camilla, it also saw the Queen putting aside the traditional crown, robe and jewels that she usually wears for the occasion.
Today was business and whatever you think about Corbyn, his statement today reflected a certain reality that can’t easily be ignored:
“This is a government without a majority, without a mandate, without a serious legislative program led by a prime minister who’s lost her political authority, and is struggling even today to stitch together a deal to stay in office.”
The situation recalls the public shock after the Brexit vote last year when the Queen was heard answering, “I’m still alive*,” in response to all the hoopla. While the Queen has no official position on the issue, rumor has it she was in favor of Brexit, marking a political divide between her and younger generations of Royals. Maybe so, but the remark was also viewed as an acknowledgement of her role – everything will be alright, I’m still here.
*To be fair, taken in the context of the actual conversation, which was with Northern Ireland’s First Minister Martin McGuinness, a man who has proudly recalled his participation in the IRA, it may have been a more on-the-nose statement that she, the most important Royal of them all, is literally still alive. This interpretation is actually my favorite, but nevertheless it got rolled into the Brexit conversation.
So, that’s the speech – a 24-month agenda that is watered down, politic and cautious. It’s unclear what the future holds for May, but in the meantime, God save the Queen.