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House of Commons

Wednesday 3 April 2002

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother

11.34 am

Mr. Speaker: I invite the House to rise and observe a minute's silence in memory of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

The House observed a minute's silence.

11.35 am

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I beg to move,

On Friday, the Queen Mother's coffin will be carried in a ceremonial procession to Westminster Hall, where it will lie in state until the evening of Monday 8 April. Members of the public will be able to pay their respects there prior to the funeral, which will then take place at 11.30 am on Tuesday 9 April in Westminster Abbey.

I know that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the Queen Mother who, for almost a century, was part of our lives, inspired our country, aroused its respect and affection, and for whose service and life we give our most profound thanks.

Part of the fascination with the Queen Mother was undoubtedly the sheer span of history that she encompassed, not just the great events of the 20th century—its wars, the ideologies that came and went—but its technological and scientific discoveries and its vastly changing culture. No doubt 1801 was very different from 1701, but 2001, compared with 1901, seems an historic age apart, and yet she saw and experienced it all.

The Queen Mother was born during the Boer war in an era virtually free from the motor car, a time when, she once remembered, a dairy man still often stood with his cow, selling milk near the gates of Buckingham palace. Yet at the end of her life, thousands of people sent e-mails of condolence to the royal website.

During that long life, the Titanic sailed and sank when she was 11; the first world war broke out on her 14th birthday and her first child was born in 1926, the year that television was invented; she was the last Empress of India; in 1986, she became the oldest person to bear the title of Queen in the history of the British monarchy; and, in all, she saw 20 different Prime

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Ministers pass through Downing street. One of my best memories of her is sitting with her at Balmoral as she told me of her personal recollections not just of Churchill and Attlee but of Asquith, Lloyd George and Baldwin.

Undoubtedly this long perspective brought stability to the monarchy and to the country, but the respect that the Queen Mother received and the outpouring of affection accorded her death are not the result simply, or even principally, of her long life. She could have lived for more than 100 years and made little mark. The tributes could have been a ritual, but they were not. They were genuine and heartfelt, from young and old, all classes, all backgrounds and all walks of life. That was because of the person that she was, not the rank that she held. The Queen Mother came to embody what was best about our past and makes us most optimistic about our future.

The Queen Mother never expected to become Queen, despite, as a child, being told by a fortune teller that she would be. It was only after the abdication of King Edward VIII that her husband became King George VI. In 1936, during the abdication crisis, she wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury:

The Queen Mother's husband had seen active service in the Navy. She had never anticipated the role of Queen. Both had led lives reasonably broad in experience and in meeting people.

The second world war was to prove that fate had chosen well for Britain. Hitler, it is said, watching a newsreel clip of Queen Elizabeth laying a poppy at a first world war memorial and noticing her poise and spirit, dubbed her the most dangerous woman in Europe—at least for him. King George and Queen Elizabeth rallied the nation magnificently during the second world war's worst hours and days. Her refusal to leave London is now legendary. A clue to why she refused can be found in what she wrote after visiting the east end:

She spent nights in air raid shelters and took revolver shooting lessons in the grounds of the palace. Her spirit and the British spirit became inseparably intertwined.

The Queen Mother was a unifying figure because she personified the diversity and unity of Britain and the Commonwealth. She considered herself a Scot, and was proud of it. A descendant of Scottish royalty, she spent a lot of time from an early age at her family's estates in Scotland. She was never happier than when at her home, the Castle of Mey in Caithness, or fly fishing in Scotland's rivers. During a visit to South Africa in 1946, she met an old Boer veteran who told her bitterly:

Not at all put out, she replied:

In all her work, the Queen Mother was motivated by the most powerful sense of duty and service. She believed that the royal family's duty was to serve the nation. She carried out that role with total and selfless devotion, even after she had suffered the loss of her beloved husband.

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She was still carrying out 130 engagements a year at the age of 80, and more than 50 at the age of 100. She was involved, often as patron or president, in considerably more than 300 charities, voluntary bodies and other organisations. She served the British Legion, for example, throughout almost its whole existence over nearly 80 years.

We should remember the Queen Mother for her great sense of fun and her zest for life. Her enthusiasm and humour shone through in all that she did, whether it was handing out shamrocks to the Irish Guards on St. Patrick's day, inspecting the Chelsea pensioners or indulging her lifelong and very serious passion for horse racing. Her infectious sense of fun could charm even opponents. The veteran anti-monarchist and former Member of Parliament, Willie Hamilton, said, on her 80th birthday:

The Queen Mother not only enjoyed life to the full, but helped others to do so. Her longevity and her vitality in old age gave hope to older people everywhere. Commenting on her extraordinary vigour and gaiety—she was still dancing well into her 90s—she once said:

As His Royal Highness Prince Charles has said, she was

Today, our thoughts and prayers are with all the royal family, and especially with Her Majesty the Queen, who in the space of a few weeks has so cruelly suffered the loss of her sister and her mother. The Queen has borne that with her customary dignity, continuing to serve the nation even while she grieves.

We have seen in the many moving and memorable tributes paid to the Queen Mother the recurring themes of her love of life, her warmth and humour, her love of country and, above all, her devotion to duty. It is the belief in duty that best captures her spirit, yet it was not duty in an arid or formal sense. She enjoyed life, lived it and loved it to the full. She showed, however, how it could be lived and loved while not for one moment compromising her commitment to duty. It is that combination of high integrity and simple humanity that made her not just respected but loved. There is nothing false or complicated about the public response to her death. It is the simplest of equations: she loved her country and in turn her country loved her. For that, and for her long life of service and devotion, we earnestly give our thanks and praise.

11.45 am

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): In supporting the Humble Address, all Opposition Members concur entirely with the tribute that the Prime Minister paid to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. As he said, our thoughts and prayers are with her Majesty the Queen and the royal family, particularly because in this, her golden jubilee year, Her Majesty has had to suffer the death of her sister and now her mother within a matter of weeks—a personal tragedy.

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Fifty years ago, Sir Winston Churchill stood in the Prime Minister's place as the House gathered to mourn the death of the King. He said of the King during the last war:

Sir Winston Churchill was more aware than anyone of the service that the Queen Mother gave our nation. All of us owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the woman who played such a vital part in defending our liberty and democracy.

We often tend to think of great figures in our history as being victorious generals, influential thinkers or inspiring national leaders. The Queen Mother's great contribution to our nation was different and special. She did not lead military campaigns, inspire through speeches or transform the nation directly, but by standing resolute in the face of danger beside her husband the King and her country, and by providing a loving family in which her children and grandchildren could grow up, she made a contribution that was no less enduring. In this, the Queen Mother shared the attitude of millions of British soldiers, public servants and private citizens whose service to future generations is given through individual lives of courage, love and devotion. When her country needed it most, she gave her inner strength and her wonderful personality. In doing so, she embodied what is good and noble about the people of our country.

As the Prince of Wales said in his moving tribute to his grandmother,

Queen Elizabeth's life embraced a century of tumultuous change, as the Prime Minister said. When she was born, the motor car was still an uncommon sight on our streets and, by the time she died, people thought nothing of flying to the other side of the world. It was a century of enormous technological advance, from communications to medicine—a century that produced penicillin and the internet, but also two world wars and the atomic bomb. It was a century in which democracy flourished, but it was also regularly threatened by regimes of monstrous depravity, such as those of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

During that century, the Queen Mother personally also had to suffer the early loss of a much-loved brother and of a husband worn down, perhaps, by responsibilities that were unexpected. From the Queen Mother we learn that character and inner strength can be a formidable anchor during times of change and upheaval. She felt no need to trim to the prevailing winds of fad and fashion; instead she stayed true to herself. Yet she never seemed anachronistic or, less still, out of touch—our memory of her has a timeless quality.

The Queen Mother's strength was that she brought to her public duties the same enjoyment with which she practised her private enthusiasms. She rejoiced in the company of young people. She was devoted to her regiments, passionate about her sporting interests—from fishing to racing—and brought energy to all the causes with which she was associated.

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I first heard of the death of the Queen Mother when I was fishing on a Scottish loch on Saturday. It struck me at the time that she might well have approved of such a way of spending a Saturday afternoon. My first reaction was sadness, but as I thought more it turned to gratitude, for the Queen Mother's life was long, well lived and for the benefit of many. She was, frankly, the best of us.

Her Majesty the Queen and the royal family should know that all of us in the House and in the country share their sadness, but that our sadness is balanced with pride. We are proud to have shared in the life of this deeply loved and remarkable lady.

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