There will be much reason to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen becoming the longest-reigning monarch in British history. Although it has been well over a century since monarchs have had regular, direct, significant influence on political decision-making in Britain, the influence the Queen has on the tone, values and sense of identity of the nation is still profound. And even politically she can make subterranean waves if she wants; her enjoining of the Scots to ‘think very carefully’ before casting their ballots in the independence referendum was taken as implying that she was opposed to it. (Rightly, it seemed, when David Cameron’s remark about her ‘purring’ with satisfaction at the result was picked up by a stray microphone.)
We can’t know precisely what’s said in her weekly meetings with her prime ministers, though not one of them has failed to state in their memoirs that they found the meetings helpful in carrying out their jobs. She thus fulfils that part of her unofficial role ‘to advise, encourage and warn’ — Walter Bagehot’s words regarding Queen Victoria, not ones found in constitutional law. Her very existence above the political fight — keeping politicians who might otherwise become prone to megalomania firmly in their place — is another reason we admire the institution she represents.
The world’s longest-reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, is a year younger than the Queen but has been on his throne since 1946. He is currently very ill, so she could break even his extraordinary record of 68 years. Of course there’s a slight cruelty in any system that forces an elderly lady to continue carrying out duties 20 years after her contemporaries have retired, and in any other line of work the Human Rights Commission would be investigating. However: ‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,’ she told the Commonwealth on her 21st birthday, and she meant it. Abdication is considered a dereliction of duty by the Queen, however many European heads of state, not to mention popes, nowadays embrace it.
When Queen Victoria reached her eighties, she was obese, often ill, black-clad, reclusive; she rarely smiled in public. By contrast our present Queen is still straight-backed, hardworking, carrying out hundreds of public engagements a year. She is by far Britain’s most conscientious and professional public servant, always topping the lists of ‘most trusted’ people in public life.
She is also a perfect example of the ‘soft power’ that Britain is still able to project in the world. (President Hollande is known to be fascinated by her enormous popularity in France, for example, where crowds line the street to cheer ‘Vive la Reine!’) When President Obama humiliates himself on the comedy shows, I enjoy reminding American friends of the estimable advantages of separating the ceremonial head of state from the elected, vote-grubbing politician. So many of the attributes that we want Britain to aspire to today — decency, imperturbability, courage, tolerance, honesty, an appreciation of the past and of historical continuity, and above all a sense of duty, are precisely those the Queen has consistently displayed over her lifetime. She is a very modern role model, despite being already a part of her country’s history.
The sheer length of her reign, like the Victorian Age, allows us to contextualise changes in Britain that might have seemed revolutionary otherwise. Throughout the events that could have induced national trauma — the Suez crisis and the end of the Empire, trade union militancy, mass New Commonwealth immigration, sterling devaluation, the ERM debacle and the 2008-09 Great Crash, foreign wars, the collapse of the traditional family and so on — we have always had at the top of society the largely unchanging, soothing presence of Elizabeth the Good, Elizabeth the Dutiful. She has been, as the historian John Grigg put it, ‘a bastion of stability in an age of social and moral flux’. The fact that she will have been doing this for us longer than any other monarch in our long national story ought to be marked by a proper national celebration. Though she’d probably prefer to win the Derby.