It's not too late to give the Queen a new HMS Britannia
'Missis Kwin' will be missed in her far-flung realms if there's to be no more long-distance air travel
BUCKINGHAM PALACE announced yesterday that the Queen would not be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM is the unattractive Whitehall acronym) in Sri Lanka in November. She has graced every one with her presence since Ottawa in 1973, the first in the modern post-colonial format. The Prince of Wales will represent her instead.
A couple of clever theories are in play: it's a wheeze to puff up the Prince of Wales's profile with Commonwealth leaders, not all of whom think he should succeed as ex-officio Head of the Commonwealth on the death of his mother. It gets the Queen out of a tricky spot given President Mahinda Rajapaksa's possibly dodgy human rights record – the Canadians refuse to have anything to do with him. But it looks simpler than that.
Peter Hunt, the BBC's well-informed Royal Correspondent, put it this way: "She is 87. Her husband is in his 90s and I think they have decided and her advisers have decided that they have to acknowledge her advancing age and have to limit her extent of long haul travel."
Long-distance air travel is clearly becoming too much. Last week the Duke of Edinburgh arrived in Canada looking exhausted after an eight-hour flight sporting an apparently spontaneous black eye.
All observers are agreed that the Queen is passionately interested in three things - horse-racing, dogs (in particular Welsh Corgis) and the Commonwealth. So not going to Sri Lanka is probably a blow for her personally.
If this means the end of her global travels it will be a shame, particularly for the Queen's far-flung subjects in the 13 'realm' countries across the globe. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a clutch of Caribbean islands are merely the most obvious. She is also Queen of a number of countries in the Pacific like Papua New Guinea where she has two official titles in pidgin, the lingua franca of the country – 'Missis Kwin' and 'Mama belong big family'.
Fingers crossed that we are still in the 'distant thunder at a picnic' stage of planning for life after Elizabeth II, but clearly it is going to be a wrench. She has always been not just there – but everywhere, the most photographed woman in the world.
She was even a re-assuring presence in the Bond films from the start, 50 years before she teamed up with Daniel Craig; in the early films next to Miss Moneypenny's hat-stand was invariably a print of Pietro Annigoni's great romantic portrait of her in Garter robes.
All kinds of little background details will change when her reign comes to an end. QCs will become KCs. The successors to Porridge's Fletcher and Godber will be incarcerated in His rather than Her Majesty's Prisons. We will no longer sing God Save the Queen. Actually, it's not a great tune. It could be a good time to substitute Jerusalem or I vow to thee my country as the national anthem. Imagine belting those out at Wembley or Twickenham.
Let's hope it's the small changes to long-held habits that will discomfort us most – and nothing worse. History has a habit of turning sour after long reigns by great and loved queens. Young men born in the last years of the Elizabethan era like Cromwell and Charles I became the leaders in a savage civil war which killed through fighting and disease nearly 200,000 – many more if Ireland is included in the butcher's bill.
Three-quarters of a million of those born in the last years of Victoria's reign ended up dying in the trenches – and many of the survivors had to take up arms again in middle age against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
All the more reason to deplore our national bad manners in expecting her to keep in touch with her realms and peoples across the globe and discharge her duties abroad through air travel alone.
The only half-comfortable way for many old people to travel abroad is by sea, as the booming cruise ship industry shows. What better way to ensure that the Queen is able to attend meetings of her beloved Commonwealth than to commission urgently a replacement for the now mothballed Royal Yacht Britannia? ·