Why Elizabeth II’s message on the 70th anniversary of her accession matters

Elizabeth II’s message to her people, published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of her accession, is remarkable for a number of reasons. 

First of all, it bears all of the hallmarks of the royal public language carefully crafted by Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Lang and Clive Wigram, private secretary to George V, back in the mid-1930s. With its emphasis on service and self-sacrifice, the message attests to the resilience of these (Victorian) themes which became central to the monarchy’s image in the interwar years and which were used to generate public support for George VI when he unexpectedly came to the throne in 1936. The message clearly evidences the impressive institutional memory at work at the palace, which continues to guide the monarchy’s public relations strategy. This royal public language has been passed down through a long line of private secretaries, as well as from monarch to monarch.

Secondly, the queen draws on the pathos commonly used in royal messages to evoke a sympathetic response from readers: see the references to her father, mother and Prince Philip. Again, we can trace the origins of this kind of direct emotional appeal to the 1930s. Thirdly, the reference to her 1947 broadcast (in which the then Princess Elizabeth dedicated her life to the service of her people) acts as a key reminder that the defining theme of her reign has been ‘duty’. This is how she, and those around her, wish her to be remembered. Fourth: ‘duty’ is transactional. It is performed by the queen in return for the ‘support’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘affection’ of her subjects. This subtle messaging is straight out of the George V playbook for royal PR: remind one’s audience of the personal bond that links them to you.

Fifth: the message indicates that it is Elizabeth II’s own wish that Camilla become queen consort when the time comes. This is a smart move. The royal family are working to smooth the path of succession by dispelling uncertainty over the duchess of Cornwall’s future title. Since Charles and Camilla’s marriage, there has been some debate over whether or not the duchess would be named queen consort, given lingering questions over her popularity with the public, and her status as a divorcée and the second wife of the king to be. Elizabeth II’s intervention thus amounts to the royal stamp of approval. It suggests attitudes have changed and that the crown is moving with the times when it comes to the status of divorced persons. It also silences dissent: to protest is to now go against the queen’s personal wish.

Sixth: the references to technology and social and cultural progress (again, reminiscent of the first Christmas broadcast of 1932) help to give shape and meaning to the queen’s long 70 year reign. This first (official) draft of history clearly presents Elizabeth II’s reign as one marked by ‘positive developments’. For example, there is nothing here on how Britain’s decline as an imperial power also ‘coincided’ with Elizabeth II’s reign. Nor is there mention of the complex and often messy process by which the empire became the Commonwealth.

Finally, this message is less forthright, compared to those of earlier decades, when it subtly alludes to the state of the British nation in the last paragraph. It is the queen’s hope that her Platinum Jubilee might work to bring people together this year. But Elizabeth II and her advisors will be painfully aware of the disunity of the body politic at this juncture. This message is thus an appeal from a queen to her people to, temporarily, put aside their differences in order to celebrate the enduring institution of monarchy. 

For more on the development of the modern ‘royal public language’ referred to here, please see Chapter 2 of my book, The Family Firm: Monarchy, Mass Media and the British Public, 1932-1953, which you can read for free here.

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