Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Long-Reigning and Reconciling Queen

Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.
Image Credit:
Joel Rouse/Ministry of Defence via Wikimedia Commons
Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0)

     This week, it was announced that HM the Queen will be marking the date that she becomes the longest-reigning British monarch by officially opening the new Borders Railway line from Edinburgh to Tweedbank, near Galashiels in the Scottish Borders on September 9, 2015.

     Train services will actually start a few days earlier, but with the formal opening, the new line will get its Royal seal of approval from Her Majesty, who along with the Duke of Edinburgh will participate with the opening celebrations at Waverly Station. Following this, they will board a train drawn by a historic steam locomotive – the Union of South Africa – with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and make the 35 mile journey to Tweedbank, which will include a stop at Newtongrange in Midlothian along the way.

     It will be a day of profound commemoration and ceremony, for at a cost of £300 million, this line will be the largest new railway to be built in Britain for over a century. However, its path will be quite familiar to train enthusiasts and local residents, for it will travel the much of the northern part of the old Waverly Route (named in honor of Sir Walter Scott’s first novel), which ran 98 miles from Edinburgh to Carlisle across the border in England, which was built and opened in stages from 1844 to 1862, but was controversially closed in 1969 following the Beeching Report, which resulted in the closure of several rail lines and stations throughout the United Kingdom for purposes of cost-cutting.

     Since then, a nearly 50 year campaign has been waged to restore the line, and these efforts over the decades will bear partial fruit when the Borders Railway begins to serve the people of Midlothian and the Scottish Borders, which has been the only region in Britain without rail service, and this has caused adverse economic effects for the area. Now with the restoration of this line, the people living there will mark a truly historic occasion, which promises to open their area up for work, education, tourism, leisure, and other pursuits to drive economic activity. It is hoped that with this much achieved, the entire Waverley Route can eventually be restored.

     But alongside the historical significance of the return of this railway is the fact that it coincides with Queen Elizabeth II surpassing her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria as Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. It has been known that the Queen, who is already the country’s longest-lived monarch and marked her 63rd year on the throne back in February, would reach this point in her reign in early to mid September 2015, but it was not entirely clear what day on which it would exactly fall. Buckingham Palace has calculated that Victoria had reigned for 23,226 days, 16 hours, and 23 minutes – taking into account the precise timings of her accession in 1837 and her death in 1901, and the 63 years in between (including 15 leap days). From there, it was determined that the momentous day would be September 9th.

     Despite achieving this milestone, the Queen herself likely wanted no public celebration – just as the date of her accession usually comes and goes without much of a fuss. Such displays commemorating the reigning monarch are typically reserved for jubilee’s like the ones in 1977 (Silver), 2002 (Golden), and 2012 (Diamond). However, given the significance of this particular event – after all, becoming Britain’s longest-reigning monarch is a pretty big deal – it only made sense to do something.

     The opening of the Borders Railway has therefore provided a perfect opportunity for the 89 year old monarch to be see out and about during a significant public engagement on what will be remembered as a very historic day, so that her record-breaking won’t be the sole reason for the celebrations that will take place, and instead will be part of something greater.

     It is quite significant that by formally opening this line, the Queen is reviving a tradition of rail in the area that goes back to a time when new rail lines were built almost every day throughout the UK, which happens to be the era of Queen Victoria, and so there will be parallels with that earlier reign – especially because of the travel by steam train, which ought to be an interesting sight for everyone and a thrilling experience for the Queen herself.

     It is also significant that this is taking place in Scotland, for it was Queen Victoria who started the Royal Family’s modern love of Scotland, which was been passed down through the generations to the present Queen, who has maintained the family tradition of spending summer holidays at Balmoral in Aberdeenshire. Spending this day in Scotland as she marks her milestone is a demonstration of her affection for a part of Britain which she holds dear to her heart – so much so, that during the independence referendum campaign last year, she memorably remarked that she hoped that the people of Scotland thought carefully about the future when deciding between whether to become an independent country or remain part of the United Kingdom.

     As it was, the people of Scotland voted to stay as part of the Union, and despite her official silence and not explicitly giving her stance on the issue, there is no doubt that she wanted her kingdom to stay together. It is therefore all the more interesting that she will be riding in the train with First Minister Sturgeon, who campaigned for and has continued to advocate for the break-up of Britain. Not only this, but it is believed that Ms. Sturgeon harbors republican sympathies.

     Nevertheless, the Queen – as a constitutional monarch – will carry herself appropriately in her engagements with the First Minister, so she will not show hostility to her or disrespect to her party. In this way, the Queen probably wants to show that she is indeed, above the day-to-day political fray, just as she likely believes the existence of the United Kingdom to be above politics and nearly beyond reproach, and she certainly doesn’t want it breaking up from under her.  Indeed, in her Christmas broadcast last year, she talked about reconciliation following the referendum and how this process would take time following the end of the two year long and emotionally-driven campaign, which as she said, had brought disappointment to some and relief to others. And she knows that she has a role to play in that reconciliation process, and that she must be Queen of all Britons.

     The monarchy is in many ways, a major piece of the glue that holds the United Kingdom together, and Her Majesty takes her role seriously. More than almost anybody else (including the politicians), the Queen understands the importance of celebrating the UK as a whole and acknowledging the constituent parts of the UK, so that each part may have a sense of ownership in the monarchy and in the idea that it is an institution that represents the entire UK. This helps to strengthen the Union because the Queen and members of her family are seen throughout the country carrying out a variety of engagements – many of which are of social, cultural, or economic significance to a particular area, and it is good to see them out and about – especially when showcasing areas of the UK outside of the capital city, London.

     In the case of opening the new Borders Railway, Her Majesty is shining a spotlight on Scotland, and this is her way of showing that Scotland matters to her personally and as Queen of the United Kingdom. She herself is half-Scottish through her beloved mother, and is a direct descendant of and successor to Scottish kings and queens going back over a thousand years, including Robert the Bruce – who defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, Mary, Queen of Scots – who was beheaded under the orders of Elizabeth I of England, and James VI & I – who brought Scotland and England together in a personal union which paved the way for the full political and economic union resulting in the country we know today: the United Kingdom.

     Therefore, the Queen represents the long and complicated history of her country and her people – the themes, values, issues, tensions, paradoxes, and contradictions, as well as the triumphs and tragedies, good and bad, joys and sorrows, and times of unity and division. With the constitutional arraignments of the UK being hotly debated, and with the country coming to terms on issues such as immigration, the economy, the role of government, and its place in the world, the Queen and the Royal Family function to help bring the British people together and see that what they have in common outweigh the forces which drive them apart.

     So it is fitting that within a year following Scotland’s decision to stay part of the Union, the Queen is coming to the part of UK for which she has great affection to mark the return of rail transportation to the Midlothian and Borders regions, while also inviting Scotland and Scots to share with her in the celebrations for that, as well as helping to mark her personal milestone.

     She has been praised for doing this – from Infrastructure Secretary Keith Brown calling it a “great honour” for her to lead the commemorations, to Councillor Graham Harvie, the Convener of the Scottish Borders Council, who remarked that the area was “thrilled” to welcome the Queen for the formal opening, and said: “The fact that this occasion coincides with Her Majesty becoming Britain’s longest serving monarch makes it unique in the history of the Borders.”

     In addition, whatever issues she has with Nicola Sturgeon will not be on display, and indeed, it may well be that the two women will personally have a pleasant time as they join together to mark the historic occasion.

     When that day comes, hopefully there will be crowds from all across Scotland and the wider United Kingdom at Waverley Station in Edinburgh, at Tweedbank Station, and at places in between along the route to take part in the double celebration. It ought to be a great day, with a cheerful atmosphere for all amongst individuals, families, and communities, which will be remembered for a lifetime. Witnessing her people having fun and enjoying themselves – more than anything else – is likely all that the Queen asks for as she goes through with this blessed moment in her reign.