Queen offers template for leaders to follow

Queen Elizabeth spoke for just four-and-a-half minutes in her broadcast on Sunday. She offered no revelations, made no accusations, provided no startling phrases. Yet she commanded her country’s attention. Plenty of people in Canada and the United States were also paying attention. It may be worth the time of political leaders to notice how she did that.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/04/2020 (907 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Queen Elizabeth spoke for just four-and-a-half minutes in her broadcast on Sunday. She offered no revelations, made no accusations, provided no startling phrases. Yet she commanded her country’s attention. Plenty of people in Canada and the United States were also paying attention. It may be worth the time of political leaders to notice how she did that.

Her remarks were short and to the point. She was there to speak to and for a nation and a larger world audience. She was not there to demand attention, but to draw people together in spirit. She said no word that anyone could reasonably disagree with.

She began by defining the moment in sober, measured terms — a time of disruption, of grief for some, of financial difficulty for many and enormous changes in the daily lives of everybody. She thanked all health workers on the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus epidemic and all the people who are staying home so as to slow spread of the disease.

She exhorted people to comply with the official hygiene advice, but she did so without threatening or lecturing anyone. She hoped everyone would be able to look back with pride on the role they had played — a tactful way of telling scofflaws, coughers and party-goers to get with the program.

She said nothing about how clever she is or how much praise she deserves. She offered no opinions on medical or epidemiological questions that are beyond her expertise. She praised the qualities of British people — self-discipline, quiet good-humoured resolve and fellow-feeling — that had seen Britain through tough times in the past and are now exhibited once again.

The Queen has the advantage of being 93 years old. British leaders love to compare each national trauma that comes along to the dark days of the Second World War, which they know about from books and movies. Queen Elizabeth was there, and she was able in her Sunday broadcast to refer with the authority of a witness to the difficult but necessary decisions that had to be made in those wartime years. City-dwelling children were separated from their parents, sent to the countryside safely away from air-raid targets.

With that context, she could use the line, “We will meet again,” quoting a wartime song everybody still knows, and evoke the well-grounded hope and expectation that better days lie ahead. It doesn’t take inflated hyperbole or puffed-up superlatives; it takes well-chosen words and thorough knowledge of a people’s shared experience.

Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip — seen here in 2018 — are self-isolating together in Windsor Castle. (Alastair Grant / The Associated Press files)

The Queen also has the advantage that she has no role in the gritty details of government. No one expects her to defend her prime minister’s administrative decisions — why was this step not taken sooner, or why were some people left out of that program? This left her free to talk about what makes British people pull together. She could sail right past the things that pull them apart.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has given himself a monarch-like role in his daily 15-minute addresses to the nation from the front door of Rideau Cottage. He leaves it to the follow-up briefing by ministers and officials to get into the details. It’s not quite the same as the Queen’s role, because Mr. Trudeau is answerable — at least in theory — for everything his government does. But it’s well that someone is defining the shared values that can hold this country together.

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