On the evening of September 9, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in British history when she celebrated 63 years and 217 days on the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The event was, of course, an occasion for newspapers and commentators to mark, and to assess her “legacy” at the juncture. (Although the moment should not be exaggerated: given progress in medical science and diet, it is hardly surprising that an old lady should survive well into her 89th year, particularly given the Queen’s very high standard of living. That she should be the longest-reigning monarch is a matter of chance, not merit.)
It goes without saying that the world has changed substantially, at least to contemporary human eyes, in the period since her father, King George VI, died on 6 February 1952. The historian, Andrew Roberts, wrote in The Times that there was cause for celebration: although the UK had changed “in massive and occasionally bewildering ways”, The Queen has “changed the monarchy in response, leaving it constitutionally weaker but in every other way far, far stronger”.
That is a fair assessment.
The thrust of Roberts’ argument is that Her Majesty’s presence has been a steady hand on the tiller of governance and culture as the intervening years have warped the fabric of the vessel around her:
“Traumas that might have destabilised other countries were incorporated into the evolutionary process that our monarchy personifies. While the withdrawal from empire in Indo-China and Algeria led to the fall of the Fourth Republic in France, the Queen’s enthusiastic embrace of the Commonwealth helped Britain to end the imperial chapter of our history without serious upheaval.
“There have been many crises in her reign, of course — the Suez crisis, the devaluation of sterling, the IRA bombing campaign, the Winter of Discontent, the miners’ strike, the poll tax riots, the Iraq War, the 7/7 bombings and the financial crash — but none has genuinely threatened a polity with an unchanging, unruffled head of state of unquestioned right of place.”
This goes some way to explaining why, in Britain, we choose to keep an unelected head of state. She has no power to wield in a formal sense (if the monarch interfered with the government of the day in any meaningful way, or published a political view beyond the strictly neutral, she would likely be abolished, or reduced to a curio) but she does provide a quiet sounding board to Prime Ministers, and other notables in the Privy Council, ostensibly a body charged with giving her advice.
Ed West, in a blog for The Spectator, considered “the very absurdity” of the “Elizabethan junta” and “this Ruritanian form of government” that “makes it egalitarian, in that it keeps powerful people in their place”. The rules and procedures of tradition, which the monarch embodies, stand awkwardly against the values of modernity, and the tendency of those in charge to push aside norms they disagree with.
It’s a little far-fetched to suggest, as West does, that a hierarchical society is somehow “more democratic than a system that feigns fairness through the idea of meritocracy” – I know which world I would rather inhabit – but nonetheless the vague wisp of divine right of kings does have a tendency to make men humble.
When Princess Diana died in 1997, the Queen was seen as aloof and uncaring in the face of widespread public grief (which some thought unbecoming of the British and more than a little hysterical) when no flag was flown at half-mast at Buckingham Palace, in the centre of London and a focal point for the outpouring of sentiment.
Tradition dictated that the only flag flown was the Royal Standard, and it was only to be flown where and when the monarch was in residence. The Queen amended protocol so the Union Flag could be raised and lowered to half-mast, demonstrating – albeit in a somewhat quirky way – a not-unyielding sense of flexibility.
That has been the strength of her attitude to monarchy.
It’s the mention of God, though, which indicates where the monarchy has strayed. Her Majesty is no theologian but her titles, inter alia, include Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Anglicans have been flotsam on the waves of history ever since their church was manufactured in the heat of King Henry VIII’s fury. When the British Empire did well, its missionaries travelled the world to bring Christian faith to the unenlightened. Since the Empire collapsed, the Anglican Communion has been lost. On matter after matter, it has amended and altered its teachings and beliefs in line with changing social opinion, particularly amongst the newspaper-reading classes of North London. This inherent liberalism has tested the church to destruction.
It isn’t just about gay marriage, the ordination of women priests and the consecration of female bishops. It’s about the dignity of the church, trendy vicars who do op-eds in The Guardian about sins against the environment, or the preference for secular values like “sharing” and “friendship” at the expense of sacred values represented in the liturgy.
The Church of England has become increasingly profane at the expense of any holy mission it may have. It has ditched the Book of Common Prayer and King James’ Bible, trading beauty centred on others for the “me-centric” orientation of the rainbow stole and charismatic hymns.
I doubt many Anglicans at all would have been “offended” (to use the contemporary parlance) if The Queen had taken a more interventionist role, over the past 60-odd years, in the running of the Church of England. Maybe she’s due more credit than I give her, and has in fact been the proverbial swan, gracefully gliding along in public whilst paddling furiously underneath (factoid: all common or ‘mute’ swans in the UK belong to the Crown).
Yet rather than quietly whispering in the ear of the Archbishop of Canterbury or letting it be known that she would prefer one episcopal candidate to another, The Queen could have taken a much more overt stance on her church, and been a largely (but not wholly) conservative brake on the processes which have splintered the Anglican Communion.
Don’t get me wrong: the Queen has done extremely well in her role as monarch, not just in the UK but as the country’s best representative to the world, and as head of the Commonwealth. In doing so well, she has given authority both to that role and to the institution of her family – and legitimacy which her son and heir, Prince Charles, ought not to throw away.
One gift from The Queen has been her quotes, and I end with a sample of her truly bon mots:
“The upward course of a nation’s history is due in the long run to the soundness of heart of its average men and women.”
“The right to change the government by the ballot box and not the barrel of a gun; perhaps the best definition of a democracy.”
“Today we need a special kind of courage. Not the kind needed in battle, but a kind which makes us stand up for everything that we know is right, everything that is true and honest. We need the kind of courage that can withstand the subtle corruption of the cynics, so that we can show the world that we are not afraid of the future.”
“Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements.”
“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
“We are a moderate, pragmatic people, more comfortable with practice than theory.”
“But nothing that can be said can begin to take away the anguish and the pain of these moments. Grief is the price we pay for love.”
“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an ‘Annus Horribilis’”
Long may she reign.
Peter Smith is a lawyer living and working in London.