William Wallace: Social change during the Queen’s Reign

Next in our series of tributes to the Queen from Lib Dem parliamentarians is from William Wallace. He has a unique perspective. Like Mary Reid, he remembers the death of her father and as a Westminster Abbey chorister sang when his coffin arrived in Westminster Hall and at the Queen’s coronation. He talks about the social change that the Queen helped along during her reign.

My Lords, I am conscious that admitting that I can remember the monarchy before Queen Elizabeth is to admit that I am well over the average age, even in this House. My first image of the monarchy was, indeed, of the Queen’s grandmother, Queen Mary, who used to come to listen to sermons in Westminster Abbey whenever a particularly radical canon, Canon Marriott, was preaching the social gospel—something which would now be considered far too left-wing for any current bishop to talk about. I learned a little more when, as a junior chorister, I sang when the coffin of George VI arrived at Westminster Hall for the lying-in-state, and rather more about the symbolic importance of the monarchy when, as a more senior chorister, I sang at the Coronation.

People have talked a lot about how much the country has changed since then. When I think back to that period, it is astonishing what sort of change we have been through. As I walked past the abbey this morning, I remembered that it was black in 1952, covered in soot. Outside, a gallery had been built for people to watch from over a bomb site, which is now the Queen Elizabeth II Centre. Inside, nearly a thousand Peers were in the north transept, in their full robes and with their coronets, and nearly a thousand Peeresses were in the south transept. In a few months’ time, when the ballot for perhaps 100 of us who wish to attend the next Coronation arrives, we should remember that social deference has ended and the social order in this country is different from what it was then.

The monarchy is about symbolism, holding the country together and reminding us of how much we are linked with the past and with the lives of others in this country. Symbolism, ritual and conventions are an essential part of holding this kingdom together. The Queen has done her best throughout her very long reign to act in a symbolic way that reminds us of that. Because I am associated with Westminster Abbey, I have seen quite a lot of the symbolic services in operation. It is astonishing how she has not only adapted but actively assisted adaptation over the years.

At the Coronation, the only minister of religion participating who was not a member of the Church of England was, of course, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. I have heard that the Cardinal Archbishop was invited but decided that he would prefer to sit in a gallery outside the abbey. On the 50th anniversary service of the Coronation, the Cardinal Archbishop read the first lesson. Representatives of our nonconformist churches sat at the side of the sanctuary. Under the lantern, in the first row, were representatives of Britain’s other faiths. That is real adaptation and a wonderful change.

For the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, the abbey and the Palace decided to symbolise the idea of the public service of all the nation and organised a procession that would walk from the west end to the sanctuary with an anointing flask, accompanied by a representation of the diversity of the nation. At the back were a Peer and a High Court judge in full robes. The head doorkeeper insisted that I put on my robes over here because he said that I could not possibly manage it when I got to the other side of the road. In front of us were Scout leaders, Guides, petty officers, NCOs and a lollipop lady in full school crossing uniform. That is good symbolism of the public service that everyone does. The Queen symbolised public duty, public service and public good. That is part of what we all need to remember and, I hope, to practise ourselves in our own contributions to this kingdom.

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