My Lords, I echo the thanks and congratulations of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, to the Front-Bench speakers, who all spoke so eloquently and movingly for us today. I have no wish to duplicate or repeat what they said; I just want to add a few remarks of my own.
Very few of us will be lucky enough to pass away in the place that we love the most, but we saw this week, after such a life of service, our Queen deservedly pass away in a place that she loved perhaps more than any other. That must have brought her, her family and her staff incredible solace. Balmoral was a very special place to the Queen. It was a place where she not only conducted official duties but was able to relax and have fun with official visitors and with family and friends.
Like the most reverend Primate, some of us have had the incredible privilege of enjoying those barbecues—not at Sandringham, in my case, but at Balmoral, where she would pretend to race with her staff up through the hills to the cottage where the barbecues took place. She was jokingly racing—she would always say to me that she knew that they were never going to try to pass her, but she had to pretend to be part of the race anyway and get there first. She would roll up her sleeves and help set the fire, set the table and clear up afterwards. It was somewhere where she really felt at home. As First Minister, I enjoyed those moments more than I ever expected to. My nerves went after the first year and, as the years went by, we enjoyed sharing stories and experiences.
I recall in particular when the Queen told a story about two American tourists, who had been on a bus trip and had wandered round the back of Balmoral to the rose garden, where she was tending the roses with her headscarf and sunglasses on. Of course, they did not recognise her. They broke into conversation: they asked her what it was like to work for the Queen and whether the Queen never tended the roses herself. She played along with it for five minutes or so, and they were very grateful for the opportunity to hear so much about the life of the Queen from one of her staff. They went back round to the bus to leave Balmoral, and she very quickly nipped into the kitchen, took her headscarf and sunglasses off, went out the front door and waved goodbye to the bus, only to see these two American tourists looking out the window, nudging everybody and saying that they had just spoken to her in the garden. That great sense of humour and fun was remarkable, and it was a privilege to have seen it up close.
I also appreciated, as I am absolutely certain previous and current First Ministers in the devolved Governments have, her interest in, and the time spent with her discussing, the way in which devolution was developing in the United Kingdom and the issues at play, good and bad, in our devolved nations.
We have heard a lot this week about consistency. Although her consistency was important, it was also very important that she was able to change and adapt with the times as society changed over the decades she served us. Her ability to embrace that change was, for me, just as important as the consistency of her values.
Her relationship with Scotland did not begin in 1999, but her relationship with Scotland informed her ability to embrace the constitutional changes that took place that year and to show real empathy, respect and support for the new institutions, not just in Edinburgh but in Cardiff and Belfast too. She met the new Cabinet in 1999 and she embodied the positive celebrations that we had in those early days. Crucially, in 2002, during that Golden Jubilee, she came to the Scottish Parliament again and reminded us of the importance of the long-term goal, helping us steady the ship after those rocky first three years and giving us a lead by saying that, if you serve the people, you will get there in the end. That made a huge difference to the Parliament and to Scotland at the time.
She understood that the UK was four nations but, more than that, she understood the Commonwealth—that tapestry of nations that she did so much to nurture and support. I was amazed to get a text today at 7 am. This time last week, I was in Maganga Secondary School in Salima, in rural Malawi—a school where none of the girls had ever visited a big city or seen a television. The head teacher sent me a text this morning which reads: “On behalf of Maganga School, staff and students, I would like to sincerely express our sadness upon hearing about the death of the Queen, Queen Elizabeth II. As a school, we are very sorry for that great loss. She was our Queen, and a great personality to us all. May the good Lord be with the bereaved family.” That is the mark of the impact that she had around the world, not just for leaders, not just for history, but right now, today, in some of the poorest villages in Malawi and elsewhere.
Finally, I want to recall her kindness to my family and my staff, and her commitment to her own family—remember, she was a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother, and her family will be grieving desperately this weekend. I thank her for her support, and know that she would want us to give full support to King Charles III; I thank her for her service; I thank her personally for those treasured moments that I have. We are poorer for her passing, but we are richer and stronger for her life.