Leaders move us to action through skillful speech acts. Their words are worth studying, which is why I’ve written before about extraordinary speeches by President John F. Kennedy and NASA flight controller Gene Kranz. Last Sunday, Queen Elizabeth II broadcast a rare televised speech about the COVID-19 situation. It’s the best message I’ve heard from a national leader about the pandemic. You can hear the entire message here:
What makes this speech so effective is its framing of the situation in context of the broader history of the UK. The Queen highlights the resilience of the British people by referencing her first broadcast to the nation, which she delivered with her sister during World War II:
We as children spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones, but now as then, we know deep down that it is the right thing to do.
She closes with a message of solidarity and hope:
While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavor. Using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal, we will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.
At 93 years old, the Queen is part of the segment of the population most threatened by the virus. As a result, the assurance of meeting again strikes the right tone of resolute yet straightforward optimism in the face of hardship. It’s another reminder of the British response to World War II.
Until now, I hadn’t fully understood the role of the monarchy in a modern democracy. According to The Royal Household, the Queen “acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.” In other words, the Royal Family is an important part of the “institutional memory” of the nation.
This speech is a perfect articulation of how the monarchy can do this, by broadening our perspective in time. Electoral cycles are relatively short, but kings and queens have life-long roles. As the world’s longest-serving head of state, Queen Elizabeth has lived through a lot of history. No other world leader could evoke her people’s courageous and stalwart response to events that happened eighty years ago as credibly as Elizabeth II. She was there, after all.