A majestic success in an age of turmoil

Posted: February 4, 2012 at 1:16 am

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On Monday, Queen Elizabeth II marks the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne. A small proportion of Her Majesty’s subjects may recall the reign of her father, or even her uncle and her grandfather. But for the vast majority, the Queen is the only head of state they have known – a constant companion through their entire lives, the still point of an often turbulent world.

To have reached this milestone is an extraordinary achievement, as well as a testament to her family’s longevity. Only one other British monarch has done so previously: Queen Victoria, whose Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in 1897. The event, which included a grand naval review at Spithead in which 135 vessels took part, was celebrated, as Jan Morris has written, “as a festival of imperial strength, splendour and unity – a mammoth exhibition of power, in a capital that loved things to be colossal”. The ceremonials in June to mark our own Queen’s Jubilee may be somewhat less grandiose, but they will be spectacular none the less: the river pageant along the Thames, for example, will be a sight not seen in London for centuries.

For Her Majesty, what should be a joyful event will inevitably be tinged with sadness. The anniversary of her accession – which she learned of while on safari in Kenya – is also the anniversary of the day that her father died, and her mother began a 50-year widowhood. Her Golden Jubilee, in 2002, was accompanied by personal loss, with the deaths in quick succession of both her mother and her sister. Indeed, the total and selfless service and dedication that the Queen has shown in her 60 years on the throne have been all the more remarkable when you consider that it was a role she was never expected to fulfil, until the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII.

For the Queen, monarchy has always been about duty and vocation, not celebrity and wealth. The institution is what matters, and she has been its stalwart custodian. Her reign has seen so many changes in society, especially the decline of deference towards authority and scorn for the emblems of power. Yet this has not diminished the country’s belief in the merits of monarchy. Quite the contrary: it has remained, thanks largely to Her Majesty’s efforts, the indisputable focus of our national community. Even the Scottish Nationalists, who intend to break up the United Kingdom, see the merits of preserving its monarchy.

It has been the Queen’s accomplishment to have kept the institution of royalty secure at a time when it could have been overrun by the forces of modernity, especially those unleashed in 1997 by the election of Tony Blair and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In times gone by, the British have retained a love for monarchy even when they have not loved their monarch; today, at a time when the media spotlight falls ever more harshly on those in the public eye, the affection in which she is held is an important bulwark for the institution itself. And yet while television has thrown more light on the Queen than on any of her predecessors, she has remained a private, even reticent individual, the very antithesis of what the modern celebrity culture demands.

Throughout her reign, the Queen’s loyalty to her people has been matched by theirs to her. And it has been to the great good fortune of both Her Majesty and her country that she has been accompanied by a consort who feels the impulse of duty and service just as strongly. As Prince Harry observed this week, it would be hard to imagine the Queen continuing to make such a commitment to her role at the age of 85 without the support of the 90-year-old Duke of Edinburgh, the husband she once called “quite simply, my strength and stay all these years”.

As well as being the oldest monarch to sit on the throne, the Queen, and her consort, must surely be among the fittest. Last year, along with their many other duties, the pair toured Australia, attending the biennial conference of the Commonwealth that Her Majesty has done so much to shape and preserve; visited Dublin on a historic mission of reconciliation; and attended their grandson’s wedding. This schedule would have been taxing for a couple half their age – and there will be no let-up in this Jubilee year, which includes visits to each part of the Kingdom, the formal opening of the London Olympics, as well as a host of state occasions and celebrations to mark Her Majesty’s time on the throne.

One might argue that this extraordinary couple deserve a chance to slow down, and perhaps to reflect on their great accomplishments. But the Queen has always been a woman who has steadfastly put duty to her Kingdom, her Commonwealth and her subjects at the forefront of her life. To do so, she has had to sacrifice much that most of us would consider normal. The trappings of monarchy – the castles, the jewellery, the robes – are not personal baubles but the symbols of office. She is the head of state and has a function to fulfil that is not just ceremonial, but constitutional. That she has done so with such devotion, hard work and steadfastness over six decades is utterly remarkable, and has reaffirmed – in an age of constant turmoil and tumultuous social change – how successful and enduring an institution the British monarchy still is.

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A majestic success in an age of turmoil

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February 4th, 2012 at 1:16 am

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