ROBERT HARDMAN: Do we ask too much of Her Majesty?

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The question is not a new one. In fact, it was being asked nearly four decades back: Are we asking too much of our Queen?

An article in the Times in February 1982, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of her reign, politely suggested that the time might have come for the Monarch to step back and let the younger generation shoulder the load.

The Queen made it pretty clear what she thought of that suggestion soon afterwards by hopping on a plane to Canada to sign a new constitution, having the Reagans to stay at Windsor, welcoming home the troops from the Falklands War and then embarking on a round-the-world trip to the South Seas where she was carried through the capital of Tuvalu in a war canoe.

Here we are four months shy of her seventieth anniversary on the Throne. And the very same question is being asked once again in the wake of yesterday’s news that the Queen has scrapped this week’s visit to Northern Ireland.

To repeat: Are we asking too much of our Queen?

To which the answer is: Yes, but… In recent days, we have seen the Queen open the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, honour the centenary of the Royal British Legion and host a summit of international financiers at Windsor Castle. That’s on top of the usual round of diplomatic audiences and the daily (albeit unseen) chore of the red box full of state papers.

She even found time to slip away to British Champions Day at Ascot at the weekend (though we can safely assume that this was pleasure, not business). On paper, this seems a ludicrous schedule for any 95-year-old, even if we were not in the midst of a pandemic.

However, here comes the ‘but’: The Queen would not have it any other way.

She does not just do all these things because they are her ‘duty’. That makes them sound like a burden to be tolerated through gritted teeth. She does them because that is what she is for. And she thoroughly enjoys being of use to her nation. Even so, say her doctors, to despatch her to Northern Ireland on top of all this was a tall order too far.

It was to have been a two-day trip, including an overnight stay at Hillsborough Castle, her Ulster residence. And it was going to be anything but straightforward. The centrepiece of her programme was to have been a major service to mark 100 years of the creation of Northern Ireland.

Though the ecumenical ceremony has been painstakingly devised by all the churches to reach across all sectarian divides, there have been endless rows about it.

The event has received a robust thumbs-down from the Queen’s opposite number, the Irish President Michael D Higgins. He has denied that his refusal to attend was a snub to the Queen, insisting that the event was not ‘neutral’ enough and that there was a grave problem with his invitation.

‘I was also referred to as the President of the Republic of Ireland,’ he solemnly informed the Irish Times. ‘I am the President of Ireland.’

Given such acute, hair-trigger sensitivities, here was an event crying out for the calming, benign, common-sensical, soothing influence which the Queen brings to these occasions. 

I have no doubt that she and her dresser, Angela Kelly, will have been giving a very great deal of thought to what she was going to wear (red, white, blue, green and orange all being problematic in one way or another at such an event). 

The Queen was not merely up for it. She was looking forward to it.

Two words stand out in the short statement from Buckingham Palace yesterday – ‘reluctantly’ and ‘disappointed’.

However, she is also wise enough to know when to stand her ground and when to follow orders.

There was another good example of this four years ago when her officials finally managed to persuade her not to take part in the wreath-laying ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

She has watched from a balcony ever since. She was very ‘reluctant’ about that, too.

Equally, she could see that walking backwards in her tenth decade – on live television – was not risk-free.

Yesterday’s decision follows a pattern of decisions which should be seen as sensible precautions and not a cause for alarm bells. 

One such was last week’s appearance of a walking stick at the Legion service in Westminster Abbey.

It has also just been revealed that the Queen has given up her preprandial gin and Dubonnet (a self-imposed decision which has actually been in place for many months, I understand, and was not taken on doctors’ orders; nor has she forsworn alcohol altogether).

Her approach to the job has not changed one bit.

Hence this week’s decision to turn down the ‘Oldie of the Year’ award on the basis that she did not feel old enough to receive it.

However, that zest for life and for the job is tempered with an acceptance that if she is going to be on form tomorrow, then there may need to be adjustments today.

Cop26 is coming up fast and she is determined to play her part in that. Ditto her appearance on the balcony at the Cenotaph, the most sacred event in her diary.

She is also very conscious that she needs to be in tip-top shape for next year’s Platinum Jubilee. By then, no doubt, we will be asking the same old question all over again.

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