Video: Why Queen Elizabeth II waited 60 years to attend a cabinet meeting

December 18, 2012

In the 60 years since Queen Elizabeth II began her reign of Britain, she has seen former African colonies become independent nations, Scotland and Northern Ireland gain greater self-rule, and the entire arc of the Cold War in which her country played a major role. But she has never, ever attended an official cabinet meeting at the prime minister's home and office on 10 Downing Street in London – until Tuesday morning.

The video of Elizabeth II's visit is above. The 86-year-old queen sits quietly between Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary William Hague as they begin their meeting. "We think the last time that a sitting monarch attended a cabinet meeting was in 1781," Cameron says in introducing the meeting.

Even this clearly banal attendance has "raised some eyebrows for appearing to blur the traditional line between government and monarchy," according to the Associated Press. Though it's difficult to imagine here in the United States what that legacy would feel like, the country now known as Britain was ruled for centuries by absolute monarchs, their power slowly degraded by a long and difficult process. The monarch's continued place in society is in many ways contingent on the often-unspoken but deeply entrenched tradition that he or she does not meddle in politics.

Tuesday, the queen's attendance at a cabinet meeting doesn't look anything like meddling. If anything, government ministers appear to ignore her once the meeting begins. That she can't attend the meeting even now without fear of appearing to meddle in governmental processes, however silly that might sound, is a sign of how definitively the British monarchy has been consigned to a largely ceremonial role.

On the other hand, that the queen has avoided these meetings during her first six decades as queen, that kings before her avoided them entirely, that her attendance Tuesday is still "raising eyebrows" for crossing the invisible line between monarch and government, is a reminder that the era of British monarch rule is not so far back in history as we might sometimes think. Probably no one is seriously concerned that the queen will suddenly order Foreign Secretary Hague to re-invade India to reinstate the Raj or start issuing edicts to imprison royal critics in the basement of the Tower of London. But the British sensitivities around even a hint of the monarch's mere proximity to government decision-making are a reminder of the long, complicated history that still hangs over one of Europe's oldest democracies.

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Anup Kaphle · December 18, 2012