As history shows, our Monarch has a proven knack to be the right person, saying the right thing, at the right time
For the Queen, less has always been more. She knows that the less she says, the more mystery and ‘soft power’ she assumes. That’s why she has never given an interview. And that’s why, when she does intervene in public events, it’s all the more effective. This week, her Zoom call to the senior officers overseeing the vaccine delivery across the four UK nations was a fine example of her understated, selfless style. She didn’t speak about her own concerns about her husband Philip, then in his seventh day at King Edward VII’s Hospital in London. Instead, she gently said that people who refuse the coronavirus vaccine “ought to think about other people, rather than themselves”. She added that it was important that people were “protected” by the vaccine. The Queen only spoke of herself as an example to others. The jab, she said, was “very quick”, adding: “It didn’t hurt at all.”
The indirect, subtle message was that, if the vaccine didn’t hurt the Queen at 94, then it’s not likely to hurt the great majority of the population who are younger than her. What’s more, if the most influential person in the country – if not the world – with a top team of medical advisers, have had the jab, surely it must be safe for the less powerful. “What she said about the vaccination was common sense,” says Hugo Vickers, biographer of Queen Mary and the Queen Mother. “She’s not telling you to have it. She’s just telling you that she’s had one and that it’s important to do it for the common good. If people have something to say for the general good in the arena of common sense, people should say it.” Over the last few weeks, the Royal Family has been involved in a bid to increase the vaccine take-up, not least among ethnic minorities. The UK Household Longitudinal Study found that 82 percent of people said they were likely or very likely to have the jab – rising to 96 percent among people over the age of 75. However, 72 percent of those in black ethnic groups said they were unlikely or very unlikely to be vaccinated. Among Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups, this figure was 42 percent.
The Royal Family has visited vaccination hubs and talked to NHS staff and volunteers. Last week, the Prince of Wales, patron of the British Asian Trust, emphasized in a webinar the need to improve the lower rate of vaccine uptake among ethnic minority communities. But it is the Queen, more than any other Royal Family member, who really does have an extraordinary effect on the nation. “People do listen to the Queen,” says Vickers. “She’s been around for a very long time. You wouldn’t think she was nearly 95. She sounds so good and hears everything. It is particularly reassuring to find her talking positively – especially at a time when Prince Philip is in hospital.” The fact that she went out of her way to back the vaccine shows the nation she cares about. The chattering metropolitan classes may ask what difference will her address make – surely there must be more relevant people who can connect more effectively with the British? But the truth of it is that, for many people – and many of those from ethnic minorities – the Queen does have a greater ‘nudge’ effect than anyone else on the planet. That is thanks to her great age and her 69 years on the throne, and her obvious love for the Commonwealth – a relationship that is reciprocated by many British people with Commonwealth links to Africa, India, and the Caribbean. Many of those from ethnic minorities might distrust Government edicts about the vaccine – but will be much more open to a gentle suggestion from a monarch who really does put duty and public service above everything. It isn’t the first time she has intervened in the pandemic crisis. Last April, at the start of the first lockdown, she echoed the words of the great Dame Vera Lynn – who sadly died only weeks later, aged 103 – when she said: “We will meet again.”
In her Zoom meeting this week, she again invoked the memory of the collective British effort of the war, saying: “Well, having lived in the war, it’s very much like that, you know, when everybody had the same idea.” She intervened before in a vaccine campaign, in 1957, when she let it be known that eight-year-old Prince Charles and six-year-old Princess Anne had been given the polio vaccine. Then, as now, there were public fears about the side-effects of a jab: some patients in America had contracted polio and died on receiving the vaccine, introduced in 1956. Then, as now, the Queen was discreet about her personal life – she said little about her pregnancies and the royal births. But, when the health of the public was at stake, she was happy to bring the media into the family sphere. As one of the first 200,000 British mothers to have their children vaccinated, the Queen had a significant effect on public take-up of the jab.
Most famously, the Queen appeared to intervene in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Vickers says: “I always thought, with the referendum, she was so brilliant when she said: ‘Well, I hope people will think very carefully about the future.’ It was such a good way of putting things. If you were standing on the edge of a cliff, and somebody told you to think carefully, they’re not exactly advising you to jump.” It’s impossible to know what effect she had on the referendum, but it is likely she helped to swing votes away from independence. Other members of the Royal Family have got into hot water when they’ve intervened in public affairs. Prince Charles has been attacked for his ‘black spider’ memos – hand-written letters he sends to politicians. “He should be allowed to write to government officials,” says Vickers. “It’s not an instruction. They don’t have to do anything.”
The Queen has been much more sparing in her political interventions. In 1976, at the bicentennial celebrations of American Independence in Philadelphia, she said: “We lost the American colonies because we lacked the statesmanship to know the right time and the manner of yielding what is impossible to keep.”
Queen Elizabeth visits Philadelphia during the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 CREDIT: Images Press/Getty
In 2019, during a tense time in Brexit negotiations, she said the nation should find “common ground”, “never losing sight of the big picture”, during a speech at the Women’s Institute. Because of her discretion, the Queen is not happy when her private political opinions are leaked. In 2012, the BBC had to apologize for a “breach of confidence” after Frank Gardner, the BBC’s Special Correspondent, told Radio 4’s Today program the Queen had privately told him she wasn’t impressed by the delay in arresting Abu Hamza. And, in 2014, David Cameron caused controversy by saying the Queen “purred down the line” to him on hearing the result of the Scottish Referendum. The wise thing for any royal to do is to ration their interventions. The Queen keeps hers to a minimum. And, when she does, she uses few words. In 2008, on a visit to the London School of Economics, she asked her hosts about the financial crash that year: “Why did no one see it coming?” Her hosts were flummoxed.
The Queen unveils a plaque at the LSE in 2008, when she asked about the financial crash
The incident shows how simplicity and brevity are so much more effective than the long-winded pomposity of so many politicians and public figures, who wrongly think that the more they say, the more important they become. The less-is-more power applies to her portraits, too, says Vickers: “She won’t comment directly on what she thinks of them, whether they’re by Lucian Freud or Rolf Harris. Even with the famous portrait by Pietro Annigoni, she merely said: “A lot of people in the palace say they like it.” The same goes for public pronouncements about the Royal Family. She very rarely makes them, except in exceptional circumstances, such as her address to the country after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. Then, she declared, with a rare personal touch: “What I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart.” The Queen was discreet, too, in her approach to Megxit and the departure of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. She has said nothing publicly about it. Instead, last week, she spoke through a Buckingham Palace statement: “Following conversations with The Duke, The Queen has written, confirming that, in stepping away from the work of The Royal Family, it is not possible to continue with the responsibilities and duties that come with a life of public service.” The Sussexes’ intemperate reply – “We can all live a life of service. Service is universal” – shows that Prince Harry has yet to learn from his grandmother the power of discretion and silence. In his interview with James Corden this week, Prince Harry said he was still determined to follow a life of public service. It’s unclear how chatting away on TV to Corden and Oprah Winfrey qualifies as that sort of life. During a global pandemic, the idea of public service has been much better exemplified by his grandmother subtly encouraging us all to help each other – by having the jab.