A few weeks after first being elected an MP I visited a primary school in my constituency and took questions from a class of 11-year-olds. After a handful about what an MP does and why I had wanted to become one, I was asked, “Have you met the Queen?” “No,” I replied, my interrogator and his classmates just about hiding their disappointment.
I was new at this, and it had not occurred to me that this would be a question that would be a priority to primary school pupils. It turned out that it usually was. On almost every occasion I took questions from schoolchildren (which happened dozens of times over 14 years) the same question would be asked. Once I had met her and could answer in the affirmative, the reaction moved from mild disappointment to one of genuine excitement.
For a brief period I met the Queen relatively regularly at Privy Council meetings and, in my role as Lord Chancellor, at the swearing-in of bishops. I would always hope that I had a school visit the following Friday. The inevitable question would be asked. “Of course,” I would casually answer. “In fact, I was with her on Tuesday.” I have never seen an audience look so impressed, so in awe, as a Year 6 class that has been told that they are in the presence of someone who was with the Queen only three days earlier.
That children were so excited and interested in the Queen reveals what a large part she played in our lives. Presumably an 11-year-old during the early days of her reign would have felt just as excited about her as today’s children did. Those 11-year-olds are now in their Eighties. In the early years of the 22nd century, the children of today will be fondly telling their great-grandchildren about the dear old Queen.
Much of this is about the institution of the monarchy – its traditions and history, the pomp and pageantry. Her longevity, of course, has strengthened her place in the nation’s consciousness. But it is more than that. Across generations, there is a genuine and deep affection for her as a person. One did not have to meet her to know that she was decent, kind and dutiful. Meeting her only confirmed those impressions.
Before meetings of the Privy Council, cabinet ministers (surprisingly nervous) gathered, were told how to address her, where to stand and so on, lined up and entered the room. A few minutes later they would leave the room, the meeting completed. What happens in the meeting is confidential but, at least in my experience, ministers invariably left the room feeling charmed and uplifted by the Queen. The disagreements between cabinet colleagues over economic policy or Brexit would be put to one side; there was a sense that we had been privileged and an appreciation of her unstinting public service. We would look at our fellow ministers and even like each other.
There was a straightforwardness about the Queen. There were no hidden motives, no jockeying for position (there was no promotion she was seeking, no demotion she feared, of course), no faction she was advancing, no argument that she was seeking to win. She was intellectually curious; she wanted to know what was happening; she evidently cared deeply for the welfare of her subjects. She was inscrutable about her own opinions; she just wanted the best for her country. It was so refreshing.
And now she is gone. From cabinet ministers to schoolchildren, she united the nation in affection for her. Now she unites them in grief.
[See also: Queen Elizabeth II has died]