The year Britain lit up the world: Philip Ziegler, one of our most celebrated historians, looks back on a spectacular 2012
00:21 GMT, 30 December 2012
Resolutely low-key, extraordinary in her ordinariness, the Queen in the 60 years of her reign has shown total dedication to her task and to her country
June 4: Fireworks lit the sky, flags lined the Mall, thousands danced before giant screens… and Cheryl Cole treated us to her considerable vocal talents. The Royal Diamond Jubilee concert had it all: Cliff in pink, Madness playing Our House on top of Buckingham Palace, and Prince Charles paying tribute to his 'Mummy'
Sixty years ago, at the age of 26, Princess Elizabeth found herself unexpectedly saddled with the burdens and responsibilities of the throne.
She was in Africa when she heard of her father’s death.
The image of her sad, slight figure descending from the plane at London Airport to be greeted by the dignitaries of the nation brought home vividly how much was being asked of her and how unfair it was that she should be thus robbed of her youth and her chance to lead a normal family life.
When she was crowned the following year, the ceremony provoked an explosion of popular enthusiasm that made it seem the monarchy was the most loved and most unchallengeable of British institutions.
Of course it could not last. Even at the time there were dissenting voices.
The day before the Royal Diamond Jubilee concert, the Queen and Prince Philip attended the Thames Pageant
The Thames Pageant
‘I don’t think sodding sausages about it and that’s a fact!’ said the stalwart 44-year-old wife of a London doorman.
‘It’s a bleeding waste of money in my opinion.’
Even in those halcyon days the hard core of republican supporters never dropped below about ten per cent of the adult population.
Royal pooches in a rare moment of sunshine
From time to time over the next 50 years republicanism flared up, usually provoked by concerns over money: should the Queen pay income tax Was it right that the upkeep of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle should cost more than two hospitals or six comprehensive schools
In 1992 – a year marked by a series of scandals involving Royal daughters-in-law and angry complaints about the size of the Civil List – the monarchy was at its least popular.
When Windsor Castle caught fire in November of that year it seemed to symbolise the plight of the institution it housed.
‘1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,’ said the Queen wryly.
‘In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.’
It would have been a bold man (or a bold Queen) who would have
predicted that 20 years later the Royal Family would be as popular as it
has ever been – enjoying a year not horribilis but mirabilis.
The emphasis has been placed heavily on the inner family: the Queen and Prince Philip, the Prince of Wales and his two sons.
The two young princes have enjoyed the most attention.
Any royal family needs one scapegrace member who will draw attention to the virtues of the others and provide the newspapers with some pleasantly titillating gossip.
For many years Princess Margaret played that role; in 2012 Prince Harry came into his own.
The Duchess of Cambridge on a visit to the Solomon Islands as part of the Jubilee celebrations
His year started promisingly when he
was observed at a New Year’s Eve party in a Swiss ski resort ‘sharing a
magnum of vodka and a magnum of champagne with his friends’ and came to a
crescendo in Las Vegas in August when he contrived to be photographed
naked in a hotel bedroom with an equally naked girl.
They had apparently been playing strip poker.
The salient point about this was that
there was nothing remotely vicious about his exploits: he had merely
been enjoying himself in an exuberant if slightly extravagant way.
The public could tut-tut contentedly,
secure in the knowledge that, when he was not rollicking in hotel
bedrooms, he was serving as a highly proficient pilot.
To underline the point, he stood in
for the Queen in a Diamond Jubilee visit to Belize, the Bahamas and
Jamaica and showed that he had all his mother’s charm.
His elder brother, Prince William,
Duke of Cambridge, is also a pilot and in June qualified to be captain
of a Sea King helicopter. He served for six months in the Falkland
He had, however, made his most signal
contribution to the future of the Royal Family when, the previous year,
he married Kate Middleton.
When illicitly procured photographs featuring a topless Kate appeared in the continental press the sympathy which she earned for this invasion of her privacy was mitigated by the reflection that she was exceptionally well-equipped to survive such exposure with credit.
Remembering the vicissitudes of Princess Diana, some people wondered nervously whether the Duchess of Cambridge was not too good to be true. If she has feet of clay, however, she has triumphantly concealed them.
Soldiers spell out their allegiance on the parade ground
Royal fans demonstrate the DIY spirit, by creating their own Buckingham Palace balcony scene
Street parties sprang up across the land (though when Foster's lager became the national drink is not clear)
She finally proved her fitness for her role when it was announced that she was pregnant.
Since sex will no longer determine the order of succession, the heir to the heir to the throne will thus in turn be producing an heir.
Any republican must view the prospect with the gloom felt by Macbeth when he surveyed the vision of Banquo’s progeny: ‘What, will the line stretch out to th’ crack of doom … Horrible sight!'
The heir to the throne has also had a good year.
In the past the Prince of Wales has been unfairly pilloried as a self-indulgent eccentric who requires a valet to put the toothpaste on his brush and who talks to his flowers.
At last, it seems, his decency, his common sense and his hard work are being properly appreciated.
While Prince Charles played at being a weatherman…
…his son Prince Harry played the fool
A typical newspaper photograph showed him at Clarence House, taking the chair at a meeting to discuss deforestation.
This is just one of the many subjects in which he takes a serious and informed interest. At one point in the year he was criticised for writing private letters to ministers.
Quite why Prince Charles should be the only person in the realm not allowed to write private letters to ministers is hard to understand.
Nor can one easily sympathise with
those who maintain that the prince should hold no views – or, that if he
does, he should hug them jealously to himself.
is only necessary to compare him to the last Prince of Wales, the
ill-fated Edward VIII, to realise how lucky Britain is to have a future
monarch who takes an interest in serious issues and wants to do
something about them.
But it is the Queen and Prince Philip who are at the heart of the system.
Resolutely low-key, extraordinary in
her ordinariness, the Queen in the 60 years of her reign has shown total
dedication to her task and to her country.
has continued to embody qualities such as decency, respectability and
familial loyalty, which are often represented as being out of fashion
yet which are still cherished by the great mass of her people.
In 1935, after a triumphant drive through the East End of London, King George V returned to Buckingham Palace and, with tears in his eyes, remarked: ‘I’d no idea they felt like that about me. I’m beginning to think they must like me for myself.’
Masks and Union flag outfits became the summer's must-have fashion items
The monarchy will survive because the vast majority of the British people feel a need for it
The Queen is quite as reticent, as apparently unemotional as her grandfather, but if she had any doubts about the love – no lesser word will do – that her subjects feel for her, they must have been dissolved by the rapturous reception she was given wherever she went at the time of her Diamond Jubilee.
The Queen does not smile easily but when she does the smile is one of radiant happiness.
She smiled a lot in the summer of 2012. Perhaps the most remarkable moment of the Royal year, however, came when she opened the Olympic Games in August.
She conducted the ceremony itself with appropriate formality but her arrival at the stadium was sensational.
/12/28/article-2253747-16ACEF4F000005DC-858_634x530.jpg” width=”634″ height=”530″ alt=”June 3: Thousands of well-wishers lined the banks of the Thames as the Queen and Prince Philip braved the cold and rain – and the BBC's finest commentators – to front the 1,000-vessel Thames Pageant” class=”blkBorder” />
June 3: Thousands of well-wishers lined the banks of the Thames as the Queen and Prince Philip braved the cold and rain – and the BBC's finest commentators – to front the 1,000-vessel Thames Pageant
there it was by helicopter to the stadium where she – or a plausibly
convincing double – sky-dived into the arena, appearing unruffled in the
Royal box a few moments later.
The performance was totally unexpected: proof, if proof were needed, that a human being with a sense of humour and a keen awareness of the changing world lay behind that deceptively formal facade.
The Queen is extraordinarily good at her job.
There is every reason to believe that another adept professional will succeed her.
Even if one did not, however, the monarchy would survive. It would survive because the vast majority of the British people feel a need for it.
It suits the British people, and unless there is some very dramatic change of circumstances the evidence of 2012 suggests that it will last a long time yet.
While the Queen wore a shawl to protect her from the elements, the other passengers on the Spirit of Chartwell – Prince Harry, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Philip – went coatless. Philip was later hospitalised