The House of Commons turned into a chamber of solemn pall-bearers and damp-eyed eulogists yesterday, as the nation's most seasoned rhetoricians strove to outdo each other with emotional tributes to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Parliament had been reconvened specially for the "debate" – a calling-home of the troops that usually happens only in time of war or national disaster. The passing of the Queen Mum was clearly deemed an example of the latter.
The chamber was crammed with dark-grey and black suits; they and their owners breathed respectfulness and high seriousness. But behind the extreme formality of the occasion, you could sense a warmth in the atmosphere. All those present, whether monarchists, republicans or non-aligned, were courtiers saying farewell to their dead Queen.
Tony Blair set the tone with the "Humble Address", his personal tribute to the nation's granny. It was brisk, and mostly as predictable as lunch: the world in 1901, the war, abdication crisis, the Blitz, the Scotland connection, her sense of duty, public service, fun, horses, charities. The Prime Minister's only personal touch was his recollection of sitting with the Queen Mother at Balmoral as she reminisced about Churchill and Attlee, then delved further back into history with Asquith, Lloyd George, Baldwin. He said the "outpouring of affection" for her was genuine and heartfelt "because of the person she was, not the rank she held".
Other speakers echoed his sentiments and muttered the same kind and sincere words: "We owe a great debt of gratitude ... Her great contribution to the nation ... courage, love and devotion ...". When MPs sing from the same hymn sheet, the effect is a little monochrome, like the suits. But there were lighter moments, when individual MPs boasted – sorry, personally recollected – about The Time I Met The Queen Mother.
Iain Duncan Smith evidently did not meet her, but that didn't stop him assuming a post-mortem empathy. "I was fishing on a Scottish loch when I heard the news," he told the House. "I think she might have approved of where I was." Well, yes; but in the surreal event of the Queen Mother being informed that "Mr Iain Duncan Smith was fishing on a Scottish loch when you passed away, ma'am", would she not be more likely to say "Mr Iain Who was fishing?"?
Tam Dalyell, the father of the House, was the only subversive voice. He suggested that the Commons should cease its eulogising and have a proper debate about something serious, like the Middle East. But he didn't quite put it like that. "I wonder, having known the Queen Mother as the sister of Fergus Bowes-Lyon, who died fighting in the First World War, if she would have objected if there was some discussion on the urgent situation at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem?" The crafty old goat. Trying the old "It's what she would have wanted" routine. But the Speaker was having none of it, and called Alex Salmond to offer some crucial thoughts on the Queen Mum's interest in racing. Mr Salmond obliged, hoping that "as she goes on her final journey" she would find "a sunny day and the going good".
After 80 minutes, the Queen Mum was in danger of turning into a saint. Sir Patrick Cormack asked that a Monday in November be designated a public holiday in her honour. Her warmth and courage were noted again and again, her enjoyment of life and her commitment to duty were remarked by people who sounded as if their own lives were all duty and no enjoyment. But the Queen Mother's spirit – quirky, capricious, always surprising – survived it all. You felt a strange warmth seeping through the Commons chamber, winding its way like a soothing oil around the solemn tributes and quotations from the Bible and all the gruff, manly recollections of how she carried out her duty in the rain.
The soothing balm was the late Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon charming the world even after her death, radiating a willed and determined happiness in the face of all evidence that life isn't supposed to be like that. And, as speaker after speaker attested, she could communicate that happiness to the nation.
In the end, the Prime Minister's peroration said it best, because he kept it simple. "There is nothing false or complicated about the public response to her death. It's the simplest of equations. She loved her country and her country loved her."