Over the 70 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, she met and dealt with thousands of government ministers, from the United Kingdom and from the Commonwealth.
While she would deal most regularly with the British prime minister, with regular weekly meetings, she interacted with ministers in other ways, such as at Privy Council meetings. Commonwealth ministers could have private and privileged access to the Queen as head of state of their countries.
Most of her ministers have reported being “captivated” by her: by her dignity, her aura of natural authority, and her conscientiousness.
This was certainly true of her first prime minister, Winston Churchill, who was initially unsure of her abilities because, as he told his Principal Private Secretary, John Colville, “she is only a child” – she was in her mid-20s.
Very quickly this changed, and Churchill, according to his daughter, Mary, came to look forward to his weekly meetings with the young Queen.
She drew loyalty and respect from ministers of all political colours, who came to find value in the institution of monarchy under her lead.
The rise of Welsh and Scottish nationalism in the 1960s led Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson to become an unlikely supporter because he came to see the monarchy as a way of promoting the internal cohesion of the United Kingdom.
This does not mean that the relationship between the Queen and ministers and prime ministers has been frictionless, far from it.
For instance, Tony Blair preferred an informal style which did not sit well with the Queen. While he requested that she call him ‘Tony’, she declined to do so. However, when he left office, he helped put the monarchy in a better position with the public by working with the Queen to bring about changes.
They focused on royal finances, engaging to make them more transparent and perceived to be fairer. He played an important part in helping her navigate the difficult waters in which she found herself, following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997, when public support for the monarchy hit a low. Overall, their relationship came to be one of constructive mutual respect.
Ministers came to respect the Queen because they found that she was a dutiful and tireless worker, always well-informed, and almost invariably in good humour. At meetings there was no chance that she would be unprepared.
This was something that Churchill remarked upon in the House of Commons when he resigned in 1955, and no prime minister or minister since then, even until the weeks leading to her death, could have said otherwise.
As she met people and politicians from all over the world, her advice, insights, and connections had to be taken seriously.
Harold Macmillan, prime minister between 1957 and 1963, found in her someone who could help him as the process of decolonisation accelerated under his charge, as she knew or would come to know nearly all the people who were to take charge in the newly independent countries.
She gained the respect of her ministers because she treated them with invariable kindness and courtesy.
At the start of her reign, Lord Woolton, who was the principal politician dealing with the planning for the 1953 Coronation, recalled in his private diary that she made a special effort to make sure that he was comfortable at meetings of the Privy Council because he was recovering from a serious operation.
Such small but thoughtful and personalised acts were characteristic of her and were the bedrock of her relationships.