Angela Smith delivers her tribute in House of Lords address on the Queen's 90th Birthday
My Lords, I am delighted to have this opportunity to follow the Noble Lady and to speak on behalf of these benches to wish HM the Queen a very happy 90th birthday.
For many of us milestone birthdays are a time for reflection. And when that birthday is a 90th and a whole life has been spent in the public eye, in public service, that reflection has an added dimension.
Like all of us the Queen will have many personal memories – of births, of deaths, of people, places and events. And, whilst her life has brought more privilege and opportunities than most, she has also known the highs and lows, the joys and the sadnessess that normal family life brings.
It is impossible to reflect on the role the Queen has played without recognition of her husband the Duke of Edinburgh. Outspoken, sometimes irreverent and at all times totally human, his support has been vital.
The late King, George VI, with his sense of public responsibility during the Second World War, had a huge influence on his daughter. I’m sure he would have taken immense pride in how she has conducted herself and shaped the role as our longest serving Monarch.
So, this 90th birthday is also a time for public celebration and public reflection. Not just here at home but across the world memories of the Queen will be shared – of a visit, a conversation or even just a comment.
When Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary was born on 21st April 1926 in London few could have predicted the life that lay before her. At that time, she was third in line to the throne, the then Prince of Wales had not yet met Mrs Simpson and started the chain of events that led to the Queen’s father becoming King.
Yet the responsibility is one that she readily absorbed, with her first radio broadcast in 1940 at the age of 14 on BBC Children’s Hour to children evacuated overseas during the Second World War.
With thousands of other young women she qualified as a mechanic and driver with the ATS. For the times it was quite bold and daring for a Princess – and not a decision that the Government was happy about believing that her most important training should be as Heir to the Throne.
Her determination and persistence in insisting that she wanted to serve her country was a clear indication she would become a Queen who would bring her own style and make her own way.
So on VE Day the two Royal Princesses were as keen to celebrate the peace as anyone. HM has spoken of joining the crowds in Whitehall, where they mingled anonymously with those linking arms and celebrating the end of the war. In the world without selfies or mobiles, I wonder how many thought that the two attractive young women partying with them looked just like Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, as with the first, the Royal families from across Europe found that as time moved on, so did they. In those post war years the monarchies from Bulgaria, Portugal and many others ceased to exist. But here in the UK, a country that has known just a short lived republic in the 17th century, the monarchy has not just survived but has increased in popularity.
And we should recognise and happily acknowledge that such success is to the enormous credit of the Queen and the way in which she has conducted herself and undertaken the role – for which there is no manual or guide.
In an age of Twitter, celebrity big brother, and the sharing of very private moments far too publicly, it is both refreshing, and enormously valued and respected that the Queen has never spoken out publicly of her views on a political or policy issue. She has maintained a dignified privacy of thought and displayed a strict impartiality. And if it was frustrating at times, it never showed.
For the 12 Prime Ministers who have had their weekly audience they have found a willing listener and someone on whose discretion they can rely on absolutely. No leaks. No tweets. Just absolute confidence. And those who have attended Privy Council meetings will recognise the business-like approach.
Some will have heard of the Labour Minister who, whilst standing as business was conducted, suddenly heard her mobile phone ringing from her very large handbag at her feet. Hugely embarrassed and diving into the bag, she desperately rummaged until she eventually and triumphantly retrieved the phone and silenced it. Her majesty looked at her and sympathised:
“Oh dear – I do hope it wasn’t anyone important”.
And that dry sense of humour has become evident over the years. At the opening of the Docklands Light Railway shortly after her election in 1987 the late Mildred Gordon MP was asked by the Queen how she liked the new job. She responded that she felt she had little power to help her constituents. The Queen replied understandingly: "Once they find out you lot can't help them, they all write to me."
The fascination with the life of the Queen is magnified overseas and often even the most diehard republican has shown admiration for the Queen’s role. Many will recall the protest of a somewhat bizarre pirouette of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau behind the Queen in 1977, although he also later spoke of his respect.
Just last week, the current Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin Trudeau met Her Majesty nearly 40 years later and payed glowing tribute. And you had to smile as one onlooker observed that “the hereditary principle is alive and well”.
My Lords – there are other well-known names who also celebrate their 90th birthdays this year – Sir David Attenborough, singer Tony Bennet and Fidel Castro. And in those 90 years the world has seen massive social and cultural change.
In technology, John Logie Baird had only just demonstrated his new invention – the Mechanical television. Yet last Christmas the Queens Christmas message had more viewers than any other programme on Christmas Day – even beating Downton Abbey!
In 1926 the first transatlantic telephone call was made from London to New York, the first red telephone box was installed and the National Grid was set up. And in that same year the League of Nation’s convention abolished all slavery, so how disappointing that almost 90 years later, we needed to bring in our own Modern Slavery Act
And whilst this week we debate, and seek to improve, the Government’s trade union Bill, it was tougher in 1926 when we had martial law on the streets in response to the General Strike.
My Lords, times may have changed. But values haven’t. The British Royal family is one of the most traditional of institutions in the world and yet if we stand back and reflect on the 90 years of the Queen’s life and over 60 years of her reign, we see significant changes.
Many politicians would give their right arm for her approval ratings, and she has perceptively, skilfully and without fanfare guided the monarchy into the 21st century. And it is clear that Her Majesty doesn’t just value the monarchy of today, but also that of the future, and has encouraged and supported her children and her grandchildren in undertaking official engagements and public service.
For some in Your Lordships House today she has been Queen for our entire lives. Many of us don’t remember any other Monarch. She is the figurehead of the nation and I hope that our tributes today convey something of the high personal esteem in which she is held. Today is a day for celebration. Happy birthday Ma’am.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon
Published 21st April 2016