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A slight departure from the usual Cabinet papers fare this posting, with a topical post on the King’s Speech to parliament a century ago. (To get straight to the text, just scroll down.)

Today saw Queen Elizabeth II give her 59th Queen’s speech (she delegated the responsibility on two occasions early in her reign when she was pregnant). As usual, the text was written by her government, and only the responsibility of delivering it fell to her. It has been like this since at least the nineteenth century and this means that the speeches, taken together, provide a unique window on the changing rhetoric of British political life – albeit one set within a heavy frame of tradition.

In 2012, it is already being said that the Queen’s Speech is remarkable mostly for its shortness, at just 827 words; but 1912’s was shorter. When he addressed both Houses of Parliament on St Valentine’s Day 1912, the Queen’s grandfather, King George V, spoke just 662 words. And while she listed 19 bills, he promised but 5 or 6: a very literal type of political economy.

He focused to a much greater extent on foreign affairs: perhaps understandable just two years out from the Great War, and with Britain then still the policeman of the world. Persia was mentioned by him and Italy and China, all of them sources of headaches. But it is worth noting that the name of Britain’s main rival, Germany, did not pass the King’s lips. Was this his government ignoring the obvious? Or was it just a tacit recognition that there was nothing easy to be done about it?

King George V and Queen Mary of Teck enthroned at the Delhi Durbar, India, 1911. SOURCE: Caravan Magazine.

On the empire, King George spoke primarily about India. Major changes were afoot there. But also the King himself had just returned from the Delhi Durbar, where ‘all of India’ had commemorated his coronation. He declared that the event, and indeed the entire visit, had provided him with ‘overwhelming proof of the devotion of the Princes, Nobles, and Peoples of My Indian Empire to Ourselves and of their loyalty to My rule’.

At home it was harder to pretend all was well. The immediate controversy between the Houses of Commons and Lords, which had ended so bitterly with the passing of the Parliament Act in 1911, was ignored. But other problems could not be. A bill for the ‘better Government of Ireland’ was promised, and indeed urgently required, (a bill which when it failed would bring about civil war).

And after a wave of strikes, of unprecedented ferocity, industrial relations legislation was trailed too. On this subject the King’s words were particularly personal, almost as if, for once, he had written them himself. He said that he viewed ‘with grave concern the prospect of disputes between employers and workmen’ and that he firmly trusted ‘that a reasonable spirit may prevail on both sides’. If this were so, he added, ‘developments that would seriously affect the trade of the country and the welfare of My people’ might be avoided. It was a view he would continue to feel, and occasionally voice, throughout his reign.

When it comes to direct overlaps between 1912 and today, aside from the formalities and familiar phraseology, there is just one. In 1912, the King said that his government would bring forward proposals ‘for the amendment of the law with respect to … the Registration of Electors’, and today the Queen promised more or less the same thing. Back then, of course, there was rather more to do in the way of maturing democracy: most of the working classes still couldn’t vote, nor any women, nor anyone under the age of 21. (Now, everyone can, and the challenge is to get them to.)

The King’s Speech

14 February, 1912

My Lords, and Gentlemen,

My relations with foreign Powers continue to be friendly. The state of war between Italy and Turkey unfortunately still exists. My Government are ready, whenever a favourable opportunity may present itself, to associate themselves with other Powers in any mediation that may help to bring hostilities to an end.

The situation in Persia continues to engage the serious attention of My Ministers, who are in constant communication with the Russian Government in regard to the best means of enabling the Persian Government to re-establish order and tranquillity in the country. Papers will be laid as soon as possible before Parliament in connection with Persian affairs.

I trust that the crisis in China may soon be satisfactorily terminated by the establishment of a stable form of Government in conformity with the views of the Chinese people. My Government continue to observe an attitude of strict non-intervention, while taking all necessary steps to protect British life and property. I fully recognise that the leaders on both sides in China have shown every desire to safeguard the lives and interests of foreigners resident in the Empire. Papers regarding the affairs of China will be laid before you.

I am glad to be able to announce that at an International Conference which sat recently at The Hague and at which I was represented, an agreement was arrived at in regard to the regulation of the trade in opium and kindred drugs. A copy of the Convention, signed at The Hague on 23rd January, will be presented to Parliament.

In My Indian Dominions, the Durbar which I held with the Queen-Empress, at Delhi, in order to make known in person My succession to the Imperial Crown of India, has furnished Me with overwhelming proof of the devotion of the Princes, Nobles, and Peoples of My Indian Empire to Ourselves and of their loyalty to My rule. In the great Cities of Calcutta and Bombay the spontaneous manifestations of an enthusiastic affection and loyalty with which We were received by all classes of citizens touched Us most deeply.

We were not less moved by the welcome which has been accorded to Us on Our return home and by the sympathy shown to Us by all My subjects in the personal sorrow which has overtaken My family.

I trust that the transfer of the seat of the Government of India from Calcutta to the ancient capital Delhi, and the creation, in consequence of that transfer, of a Governorship for the Presidency of Bengal, of a new Lieutenant-Governorship in Council for Behar, Chota Nagpur and Orissa, and of a Chief Commissionership for Assam, may be fruitful in promoting the prosperity of My Indian Empire.

A Bill to provide for certain details required for the constitution of the new Provinces will be laid before you.

Gentlemen of the House of Commons, The Estimates for the expenditure of the coming year will in due course be laid before you.

My Lords, and Gentlemen,

I view with grave concern the prospect of disputes between employers and workmen, and I firmly trust that a reasonable spirit may prevail on both sides and avoid developments that would seriously affect the trade of the country and the welfare of My people.

A measure for the better Government of Ireland will be submitted to you.

A Bill will be laid before you to terminate the Establishment of the Church in Wales and to make provision for its temporalities.

Proposals will be brought forward for the amendment of the law with respect to the Franchise and the Registration of Electors.

A Bill will be introduced to give effect to the unanimous recommendation of the last Imperial Conference for the amendment and consolidation of the law relating to British nationality.

You will further be invited to consider proposals for dealing by legislation with certain social and industrial reforms.

Your labours upon these and all other matters I humbly commend to the blessing of Almighty God.”

SOURCE: Hansard.

Addendum: Jo Pugh from the National Archives (who keeps his own excellent blog at http://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/author/jpugh/ & a brilliant Twitter feed at @mentionthewar) asked me to explain what King George’s ‘personal sorrow’ was in February 1912. Initially both he and I could only think that it might be a continuation of Victorian-style grieving for the old King. But he had died in May 1910. Further research uncovered an altogether more recent tragedy.

In December 1911, when en route to Egypt, the King’s sister, Louise, the Princess Royal, and her husband, the Duke of Fife, Alexander Duff, had been shipwrecked off the Moroccan coast. Both escaped alive, but the Duke, who was only 62, later contracted pleurisy. On 29 January 1912, just over a fortnight before the King addressed parliament, he succumbed to the illness. And it was this event, the death of his brother-in-law, to which George V was referring.