Andrew Vine: George VI’s spirit lives on thnaks to Queen’s record reign

King George VI with a young Princess Elizabeth.
King George VI with a young Princess Elizabeth.
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IT IS yet another extraordinary milestone in the longest reign in the 1,000-year story of the monarchy, another first never likely to be equalled.

Monday marks the Queen’s Sapphire Jubilee – 65 years since she came to the throne, and although no major public celebrations are planned, people across the land will give thanks for her indomitable spirit.

But for the Queen herself, the day has a deeply personal and poignant resonance because it is the anniversary of the death of her beloved father, George VI, on February 6, 1952.

How much his loss still resonates with her was illustrated when she became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch on September 9, 2015, overtaking Victoria’s 63 years and 216 days on the throne.

She wanted no official celebration, and palace officials let it be known that the Queen viewed the record as only existing because George died at the relatively early age of 56, and she would far rather he had lived a long life.

There had been other indications over the course of her reign. For its first 50 years, she rarely carried out engagements on the anniversary, preferring to spend the day in prayer and quiet remembrance.

Then, in her Golden Jubilee year of 2002, she marked February 6 with a clear gesture to his memory by visiting a hospital specialising in the treatment of cancer, the disease that claimed him.

Only a relatively small proportion of the population has much clear recollection of George VI now, but his spirit lives on in his daughter’s record-breaking reign.

The example of this shy and diffident man, like the Queen not born to be sovereign, has influenced every era of her 65 years on the throne and defined the bond of affection she has with her people.

The image of him that endures is from the darkest days of the Second World War, in uniform, his face gaunt with worry, picking his way through the rubble of the blitzed East End of London, able to look its people in the eye after Buckingham Palace was also bombed.

For many younger people, what they know of him comes from the multi-award winning 2010 film The King’s Speech, which told the story of his lifelong struggle with a stammer that made public speaking an ordeal.

But these are only snapshots of a complex man and formidably intelligent sovereign, brought unexpectedly to the throne by the abdication of his older brother, Edward VIII, in 1936, a seismic shock for the both the country and the monarchy.

Faced by an uncertain future for the monarchy and then war, George steadied the institution, rebuilt its popularity and came to symbolise the country’s resolve during its darkest hour, even though for the early part of his reign he was wracked by self-doubt as to whether he was up to the task that had been thrust upon him.

In March 1940, as the British Expeditionary Force in France was being driven back towards the beaches of Dunkirk, and it seemed likely that Hitler would soon attempt an invasion of Britain, a touch of despair crept into George’s diary entry.

“I am very worried about the general situation,” he wrote. “Anything we do or try to do appears to be wrong or gets us nowhere.”

In the face of such a threat, George’s steadfastness won him not just the respect, but the love of his people.

And his steadfastness set the template for the Queen’s reign. As he steadied the monarchy after the Abdication, so did she after the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when the bond between the Royal family and the people came under severe strain.

She was 10 when he became King, and according to the diary of her governess, Marion Crawford, the first she knew of this was when she heard a footman at the family’s home in London shout “God save the King”.

The diary records that the young Princess Elizabeth dashed upstairs and told her sister, Margaret: “Uncle David is going away and isn’t coming back, and Papa is going to be King.”

“Does that mean you will have to be the next Queen?” asked Margaret, then only six. “Yes, some day,” said her sister. “Poor you,” replied Margaret.

From then on, George had not only to shoulder the burden that little in his background had readied him for, but to prepare his daughter to succeed him.

She was fortunate to inherit her father’s qualities of decency, integrity and determination, and they have been the key to her relationship with her subjects.

How closely the Queen’s attitude towards the role of the sovereign mirrors George’s is perhaps inevitable. His family was his comfort and sanctuary, whom he lovingly termed “us four”.

The King, Queen Elizabeth, and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret were the closest of families, and reminders of that closeness – and how her father had reigned – remained with the Queen until the eve of her Golden Jubilee, when her mother and sister died within weeks.

The full weight of royal responsibility first fell on her shoulders as long ago as 1944, when with George visiting British troops in Italy, the 18-year-old Princess Elizabeth carried out the official duties of head of state, including receiving an address from the House of Commons.

Her oft-repeated maxim “The Queen must be seen to be believed”, which lies behind the punishing schedule of engagements she maintains in her 10th decade, comes from her father, who was seen by more of his people than any monarch before him.

George understood that the sovereign must be visible and seen to be working on behalf of the people.

The Queen’s close attention to affairs of state follows her father’s example. George was a stickler for detail and his knowledge of Government business comprehensive, through one of the most turbulent periods in British history.

He skimmed or skipped nothing in the red boxes of Government papers delivered to him daily, and neither does the Queen.

Monday is likely to be a day of mixed emotions for the Queen. For her, the date is the most personal of milestones, and as the nation marvels once more at the length of her reign, it should also remember with warmth the loving father who was her surest guiding light.