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NICHOLAS Fairbairn read over Sir John Betjeman’s Jubilee Hymn, which had been written to mark the 25th anniversary of the Queen’s reign, and decided that it just would not do. It was, sniffed the prominent, pugnacious Tory MP, “absolutely pathetic .. It is just crude, vin ordinaire, plonk. I could write a much better one myself and I shall – I shall do it next week”.
Fairbairn was far from being the only dissenting voice when it came to the Poet Laureate’s hymn, but it was strongly defended by Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queen’s Music, who had set it to music for a well-received performance at the Royal Albert Hall, on February 6, and now dismissed Fairbairn as a “minor politician”.
In the early part of 1977, Britain was gearing up for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The country’s finances being in a parlous state (the previous September, Chancellor Denis Healey had had to borrow £2.3bn from the IMF in order to meet deteriorating economic conditions) the monarch was not keen on there being any undue expenditure.
But, as author Robert Hardman notes in his new book – Queen of Our Times – her most senior adviser, Sir Martin Charteris, realised adroitly that a celebration of 25 years on the throne, if handled properly, could help cheer Britain. Which, in the event, it did.
Newspapers weighed in with editorials on February 6 and 7. The Glasgow Herald said the Queen had, like her father before her, “become a symbol of national unity at a moment when other symbols were either collapsing or disappearing with monotonous regularity ... These qualities have helped to preserve stability in Britain, so that the country now has hopes of a genuine rebirth of energy and optimism”.
For its part, however, the Guardian noted that Britain was feeling “apathy” towards the forthcoming Jubilee celebrations. And republicans continued to grump about the size of the Civil List (the royals were dismissed as “useless layabouts” by the Labour MP for Selly Oak).
And all of this came at a time when there was persistent agitation in favour of devolution or more for Scotland.
The SNP had gradually become a significant force in Scottish politics, and its skilful exploitation of the North Sea oil issue had served it well in the two elections of 1974.
The Labour government’s response was to put forward a Bill to create a Scottish Assembly. The first Bill was talked out in February 1977 but the second one was passed, in 1978.
The Queen, Hardman notes, was sufficiently perturbed by what he describes as “nascent Scottish nationalism” that she included it in her speech to both Houses of Parliament on May 4.
She declared that while she understood aspirations towards devolution to Scotland and Wales, “I cannot forget that I was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Perhaps this Jubilee is a time to remind ourselves of the benefits which union has conferred ... on the inhabitants of all parts of this United Kingdom”.
Taken aback, Donald Stewart, the SNP parliamentary leader, responded that if his party were forced to choose, it would choose independence without the monarchy. A Herald leader noted that those who sought an independent Scotland would feel understandably aggrieved “by this royal interference in their democratic political activity”.
The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh sailed to the Pacific on Britannia to begin their Jubilee tour; and on Tuesday May 17 it was the turn of Glasgow.
A Herald journalist, walking the royal route on the Monday, found that, apart from Buchanan Street, the bunting was sparse; nevertheless, an English visitor, newly arrived at Central Station, was impressed by the decorations and told her friend: “You’ve got to admit it, whatever they say about the Scots they’re really very loyal”.
As indeed they were, with their Union flags and dazzled smiles of welcome. Some 200,000 Glaswegians spilled into the sun-splashed, bunting-draped streets to greet the royal visitors.
The Queen’s day included a 21-gun salvo across the Broomielaw, a “fire and brimstone” speech by the Church of Scotland Moderator at Glasgow Cathedral, a challenge match at Hampden between a Glasgow Select and an English Select (the Scots won) and, in the evening, a Royal Variety Jubilee Show at the King’s Theatre.
She met more than a thousand uniformed and liveried dignitaries at the celebration. In a George Square pulsing with 6,000 wellwishers, a woman in a bonnet called out, “Guid oan ye, missus!”
“Glasgow belongs to you!” read the upbeat headline in the Herald the following morning.
The Queen spent the night on the royal train at Central Station before leaving the following morning for engagements in Stirling and Cumbernauld. She visited Perth and Dundee on May 19, Aberdeen on the 20th. A quiet weekend at Balmoral paved the way for a week of engagements in Edinburgh.
In Dundee’s Camperdown Park, the royal couple were jostled (though unhurt) as crowds trampled through rope barriers.
Drinkers at the city’s Windmill Bar saw the Duke, passing by in the royal car, casting a quizzical eye in their direction and saying something to the Queen. They sent him a poem, asking what he said; the Duke promptly replied in verse form from Holyroodhouse, and his response was framed in the pub.
In Aberdeen’s bright sunshine, thousands greeted the Queen. The city had been the scene of her first public engagement, more than 30 years earlier, when, as Princess Elizabeth, she had opened the Sailors’ Home in Mearns Street.
The Glasgow Herald, in a leading article on May 21, recorded the paper’s pleasure at the success of the Jubilee celebrations, and added that the Queen had been acclaimed even in areas where the SNP had enjoyed notable political success.
The Edinburgh engagements were a sustained triumph: cheering holiday crowds lining the Royal Mile to greet the Queen (and Prince Charles, too, newly installed as a Knight of the Thistle); a standing ovation at the Kirk’s General Assembly; a magnificent pageant at Meadowbank stadium, attended by 4,000 young people led by a track-suited Jimmy Savile. (He was later pictured, crouching behind press photographers. taking his own photos of the Queen.)
Among the 9,000 guests at a Jubilee garden party at Holyroodhouse was a woman from Skye who since 1927 had been collecting royal pictures from newspapers and magazines. Her 100,000 photos filled no fewer than 110 volumes.
The Queen’s final engagement in Edinburgh was the opening of the airport’s £15m passenger terminal building. She then embarked on her successful Jubilee celebrations in the rest of the UK.
At its annual conference in Dundee that week the SNP, though split on the issue, reaffirmed its commitment to retaining the monarchy in an independent Scotland.
A Herald leader made the point that the Jubilee tour had proved that loyalty to the Crown in Scotland “runs as deep as it has ever done”.
Much has changed in Scotland since those far-off days. Who would have guessed back then that the Queen would, in the July of 1999, travel to Edinburgh to commemorate the opening of a Scottish Parliament?
All of that lay ahead. In 1977, the Queen was delighted with the public acclaim that had come her way. She was, says Robert Hardman, “a fifty-two year old mother-of-four, watching secessionist cracks appearing in the peeling paintwork of a divided kingdom. And yet the responses and the numbers ... showed that the monarchy could touch a chord seemingly beyond the reach of any other national institution.”
The Jubilee, he adds, had been a morale-booster, not just for her, but for her country too.