10th April 2020
An estimated 24 million Britons – 80% of the TV audience – watched the Queen deliver a four-minute special message on the 5th of April. This is even though what she was going to say could have been predicted almost literally. The Queen’s speeches are noted for bland carefulness; when you have seen one, you have effectively seen them all.
But that is partly their point. Bland carefulness becomes positively therapeutic at times of crisis, when it is more than usually important not to instil panic in the patient. The Queen’s speeches are one of very few things in postwar Britain that haven’t changed even as society turned itself inside out. The monarch’s speeches give a semblance of calmness and continuity to a country that even in ordinary times is always in need of assurance.
The simple sight of the Queen on the screen on Sunday reminded (most) British people that their national talisman is also a human being – that she has some idea what they are going through, and cares. Her calm and dignified words were comfort food for the British brain, broth for the national invalid. She was there, and that was enough. Her allusions to World War II evoked memories of yet earlier conflicts, and earlier English monarchs – and a country that carried on, a people who came through. As Helen Thompson wrote for Unherd
…in reaching back to the past, she touched an ideal of collective purpose and individual stoicism… We would like to be who she remembers us to be, who she takes us to be, and perhaps because we listened to her, who we might find more compassion and inner strength to be.
In times when flesh is horrifyingly shown as grass, we like to see examples of endurance. Britain is fortunate to have this institution which is seen to rise above and outlast the bombast and transience of election cycles.
Boris Johnson’s speech of the 23rd of March was watched by even more people – almost 28 million. But the reactions to his words were very different. Even in 2020, monarchs are mantled in mystique, whereas even the most popular politicians have plenty of media critics and legions of haters (with the exception of the late Nelson Mandela). A Prime Minister’s power is real-world and wide-ranging, but incapable of competing at the level of simple belief. Even as the Prime Minister went into intensive care, parts of Facebook and Twitter erupted in a venomous anti-Tory skin-rash, notoriously expressed by the Derbyshire mayoress who wrote ‘sorry, he completely deserves this and he is one of the worst PM’s we’ve ever had’ – a message unkind even to apostrophes.
Both kinds of leadership are necessary now – the psychological and the political, the moral and the practical, the reassuring and the real, the cultural and the calculated. Political leaders should be given considerable leeway during a crisis of this kind, when old rules are suddenly revealed as irrelevant, and fateful decisions have to be made quickly, based on constantly changing and sometimes conflicting information. Mistakes are dreadful – but they are also inevitable, whichever approach(es) we adopt. It may be many years (if ever) before we can tell whose strategy and tactics were most efficacious.
In the meantime, it is as big a mistake to be too cynical as it is to be too trusting. Debate over policies is desirable, and scrutiny is salutary, so long as they do not become corrosive, or interfere with effective action. We need to extend trust even to our opponents, for a while.
We should remember that no politician wants to be in the position of having to mortgage the economy for years to come, throw countless people out of work, and even tell their voters to stay indoors on pain of being arrested. Few, if any, see the crisis as something they can exploit for career purposes, but are genuinely committed to ending it as painlessly as possible. Nor – notwithstanding certain social media suspicions – do politicians seek to manipulate the crisis in order to extend control over populations, or expand global governance.
Politicians are after all also human beings, and those now in charge are likely to be ever after haunted by the consequences of what they do, or don’t do. They know their careers and reputations, and the health and wealth of millions, may depend largely on luck – the development of a vaccine, a warmer weather respite, a gradual organic decline in virulency, or some other deliverance, as happened in earlier, worse pestilences.
While they try to find a way through, we should give them a chance, comport ourselves with as much calmness as we can muster, and recall the Queen’s kindly admonition –
I hope in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge.