ParliamentRoyal FamilySpeeches

Harriet Harman – 2022 Tribute to HM Queen Elizabeth II

The tribute made by Harriet Harman, the Mother of the House of Commons, in the House on 9 September 2022.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. What an excellent speech from the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), which I am sure will have resonated in every Member of this House and, indeed, everyone in this country. It was a brilliant speech.

I am grateful for the opportunity to pay my tribute to the Queen, on my own behalf but also on behalf of my constituents, particularly those who, coming from Commonwealth countries in Africa and the Caribbean, held the Queen in such high regard.

We are a constitutional monarchy, and for we MPs, the Queen was ever present in the interwoven relationship between the monarch and her Parliament. She underpinned our democratic system for over 70 years—underpinning it but never intervening in it. She was always salient but never meddled. She avoided controversy not by staying in the background—far from it; she performed her role to the utmost—but by respecting the boundaries. She carried out her duties and gave us her full commitment for us to carry out ours. When many denigrated, she always respected and supported Parliament. We should be very grateful for that.

Between her Ministers—not just Prime Ministers—there was regular contact. After Labour won the election in 1997, I went up to the Palace, where she appointed me, like the other new Secretaries of State, to the Privy Council and bestowed on me the seals of office. They are actual seals, which are given to you and you take back to your Department to be locked in a safe. When, just a year later, I was sacked and the seals were taken out of the safe and back to Buckingham Palace, my diary was empty and my phone stopped ringing, my office was astonished to get a call from the Palace. No one else wanted to have anything to do with me, but the Queen wanted to see me. I was invited to take tea with the Queen, for her to thank me for my service as Secretary of State.

My point is that the relationship between our Queen and Parliament, and our Queen and Government, was never just on paper, but was always active and always encouraging. She radiated British values of duty, patriotism, internationalism, charity and service. But while she embodied British values, she never intervened in politics, and that is constitutional alchemy—nothing less.

It is evident that everyone, even those who do not agree with the hereditary principle of the monarchy, cannot but marvel at her personal qualities; and I want to marvel at how she could do all this flawlessly, not just over so many decades, but as a woman starting her reign in what was emphatically then a man’s world. We have to remember what attitudes were at the time. The order of the day was that men were in charge and women were subservient. The man was head of the household, and the role of a woman was to get married, have his children and support him. In the 1950s, when she was crowned, I was a child, and I remember my mother warning me that people thought men knew more than women; that men’s views were valuable, while women’s were to be disregarded.

It was in that atmosphere that she stepped up, as a 25-year-old married woman with two children, to take her place at the head of this nation and play a huge role on the world stage. What determination and courage that must have taken. The Prime Ministers she dealt with were mostly men, and mostly twice her age. Things were very different then; huge change has taken place during her reign. Things were very different when, six years ago, she threw open Buckingham Palace for us to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the BBC’s “Woman’s Hour”, and to celebrate how much women had achieved.

As Sir Tony Blair said, she was the matriarch of this nation: a matriarch for us on the world stage, and a matriarch too at home, in her own family. As well as being our monarch, she was the mother of four children and had many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and it is to her family that I extend my deepest sympathies for their loss and condolences for their grief, which we all share.