Never explain, never complain: The power of Her Majesty’s silence

This article was published by The Spectator on 3rd June 2022

The Queen’s Christmas message in 2002 was unusual. She explained, briefly, her approach to her role. One could even say that she ‘opened up’:

‘Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God.’

Her Majesty has spoken countless times subsequently. Her collective speeches have included many hundreds of thousands of words. In which, paradoxically, she has said very little. If asked to quote our monarch of seventy years, many of us would immediately jump in with two words: ‘Annus Horribilis’. And then struggle horribly.

Grief is the price we pay for love

I asked a colleague renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of speeches. He remembered ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’, her beautiful, stoical observation on the passing of Prince Philip. He also recollected her promise made on her 21st birthday in 1947: ‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.’

It would be safe to say that amongst the tea towels, key rings and tea-sets on sale in this Platinum Jubilee year, we are unlikely to find a book entitled ‘The Queen’s 21 most inspiring speeches’. Or even her 21 most memorable quotations.

Seen but not heard

This is, of course, not something that has happened by chance. Our monarch made an early and eminently sensible decision to lead by example. To retain the mystique of the monarchy; to be seen but not heard; to never explain, never complain. In the early stages of the broadcasting age, this showed considerable vision. In the context of social media it has become essential.

Her willingness to endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune means the greatest celebrity of our age is also the most respected. She has not only understood that actions speak louder than words, ironically a maxim first articulated by that master orator Abraham Lincoln, but she adhered to it throughout.

Family faux pas

How unfortunate for her then that almost every crisis to embroil her monarchy under her watch has been fuelled by her family failing to heed her example. Her husband’s foot was, notoriously, never far from his mouth. Her eldest son and heir has been teased for his conversations with plants, ridiculed for his desire to be reincarnated as a tampon and lambasted for ‘whatever ‘in love’ means’, his timeless gift to best men the world over.

And then came Harry. Calling his Asian army colleague a ‘Paki’ was probably the nadir of his single days. Originally he stumbled into faux pas. Now he prepares them carefully. He has described the First Amendment as ‘bonkers’, his father’s parenting as not making sense and his life of neglect. He has announced that ‘I like to think we were able to speak truths’, even when these truths seem a little delusional. In April we discovered that he popped home to see a grandmother who tells him things ‘she hides from others’. He also wanted to ensure she was receiving the right protection’.

Harry rolls out words, and with them, yet another layer of the Royal family’s aura and dignity is peeled away. As he boasted of his special relationship with the Queen, she remained silent.

The power of brevity

We are subsumed by rhetoric. Never before have so many had the technological platform to address us in our own homes. As public speakers, it becomes increasingly difficult to be memorable for the right reasons. Speeches are stripped for soundbites. Gaffes go viral. Some, like President Zelensky, still manage to shine. Many more flounder. A rare few have taken the opposite route by understanding that the best way to make their point within this maelstrom of noise, is not to add to it.

When she does speak, the Queen’s points are made with the opposite of a flourish. They represent an attitude and an approach rather than any attempt at rhetorical flair. Which, in essence, is her greatness. An ability to treat the two imposters with unruffled calm.

In seventy years on the throne, she has only given four formal addresses to the nation. Each time, we listened. Ronan Keating of Boyzone sang ‘you say it best when you say nothing at all’. As a piece of communications advice for modern royalty, it is unmatched in its good sense. If any member of the family can vouch for that, it’s Harry’s Uncle Andrew.