On 9 September, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, beating the record set by her great-great grandmother, Victoria. Characteristically, she wanted little fuss made of the occasion but in a culture that cherishes such milestones, the occasion prompted much reflection on the changing nature of the British monarchy.
Elizabeth, who is also the head of the Commonwealth, is widely regarded as having done well in a position she was never expected to hold (since she was the niece of the heir, Edward VIII, when she was born in 1926). Her devotion to her public role, her refusal to get involved in politics or any even vaguely controversial issues (unlike her eldest son, Charles, who has lobbied ministers relentlessly about his often eccentric hobbyhorses) and her discretion have prevented republicanism making much headway in Britain. Even in the modern era of an intrusive and increasingly undeferential press, there has been no scandal attached to her, though that cannot be said for the rest of her family; the monarchy’s popularity plunged to its post-war nadir in the aftermath of the death of Diana in 1997 following years of squalid tabloid revelations when the royal family sometimes seemed more like a soap opera.
For all the affection she inspires, her reign never became the ‘new Elizabethan Age’ invoked by Clement Attlee in 1952. Unlike Victoria, who gave her name to an epoch that saw Britain rise to global pre-eminence, the general trajectory of the United Kingdom during her 63 years, seven months and two days on the throne has been a steady decline in power and unity. Nevertheless, her personal popularity has maintained support for the institution: the majority of the country—68%—still believes that the monarchy is worthwhile and only 18% of the British public believe there should be an elected head of state instead of the Windsors, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Nevertheless, there were dissenting voices. The Telegraph, the most royalist and conservative of serious British newspapers, made an attempt to collect loyal greetings to the Queen offered by devoted subjects under the Twitter hashtag #ThankTheQueen but it backfired, the Huffington Post reported, when it got instead sardonic tweets such as #ThankTheQueen for producing offspring so odious that the end of the monarchy cannot be far off and #ThankTheQueen for taking millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money that might otherwise have been wasted on schools and hospitals.
An editorial in the Guardian, a republican newspaper, noted that she had succeeded in taking politics out of the monarchy but could not take the crown out of politics: ‘The robing of authority in royal mystique does nothing for accountability.’ It doubted that ‘her eldest son, who lacks his mother’s talent for keeping one’s mouth shut, will make the same contribution to keeping the kingdom united.’
Deborah Orr, also in the Guardian, wrote: ‘She carries on so that she and her family and their institution can carry on. Her self-abnegation is really self-interest.’
The left-wing French newspaper Libération’s front page used the cover of the Sex Pistols’ controversial 1977 record God Save the Queen with the headline: ‘Why such a reign?’, calling her time on the throne ‘23,226 days of boredom and tradition’. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung justifiably described the Queen as ‘The Saviour of the Monarchy’.
David Starkey, a well-known historian, was condemned by the Daily Mail for writing: ‘The Queen sees being monarch not as something grand … it is a job.
‘To wear outlandish clothes and baubles; to parade in public; to be painted and photographed more times than your subjects have had hot dinners; to make endless speeches and to meet all sorts and conditions of people.’
It may be a job, but even those who dislike the institution she embodies would agree that it is one she has done well.