When in July the Sun published pictures of the Queen as a child giving a Nazi salute, apparently under the supervision of her uncle the Prince of Wales, the most striking aspect of the slightly surreal episode was the response. Outrage was directed not at the monarch but at the newspaper, and it came from all sides, including those who could be best termed the unusual, unsympathetic suspects.
The unfairness and opportunism of it all confirmed Sun-haters in their contempt for the paper, while others pointed to the long-standing republicanism of Rupert Murdoch as the main motivation. Certainly, the timing seemed suspicious. If it had not been dismissed so quickly, it would have seriously impaired the marking this month of the Queen overtaking her great-great-grandmother Victoria to become the longest reigning monarch in our history.
The fact that it has not is evidence of the universally high regard in which Elizabeth II is held as she celebrates (in her customary low-key way) this extraordinary milestone. She is virtually beyond criticism now, her popularity at the same level she enjoyed at her accession in 1952, when she was adored, revered in fact, as some sort of quasi-mythical figure, the youthful symbol of a new Elizabethan age. Of course the respect she is accorded now is based on something quite different. It has been earned, and attaches solely to her.
During the intervening 63 years, deference as a characteristic in British society has completely disappeared, and the point or otherwise of the monarchy as an institution is more openly weighed up. The Left oppose its imperial privilege, free-marketeer ideologues dislike anything which cannot be bought or sold, and the purest Eurosceptics dislike the crown’s tendency to give royal assent to EU treaties. Like Victoria, Elizabeth has also endured periods, most notably the “horrible decade” of the 1990s, when republicanism enjoyed a short lease of life. The fact that the institution now enjoys great public support in such a transformed landscape is partly down to the embedded, obstinate position it holds within the British psyche, and partly to a tangibly increasing sense that anything deemed organically of this nation must be held on to when so much appears to be going. But also, of course, it is down to the Queen herself.
As she opens Parliament or stands before the Cenotaph for the 60th time, she appears as permanent as those edifices, embodying in flesh and blood the history and traditions that they represent in brick and stone. Attributes for which she was once mocked — her voice, her manner, the wave, the style which seems immune to fashion — are now seen as illustrations, as symbols, of an unchanging and imperturbable quality which most people not only accept about her, but actively appreciate. It is the gnashing and wailing of the Diana years which today appears odd, alien and faintly embarrassing.
With her 90th birthday on the horizon next April, and even the idea of a Platinum Jubilee in 2027 seeming less implausible with each passing year, the Queen has taken on what could be described as a historical quality. History, however, is impatient to record itself, so in recent years we’ve seen high-profile representations of episodes from her reign on stage and screen. In the cinema Helen Mirren portrayed her response to the death of Diana, and in doing so explained and justified the monarch’s behaviour more effectively than a thousand newspaper columns. On stage, The Audience surveyed 60 years of weekly meetings with 12 prime ministers. And the play King Charles III speculated in mock-Shakespearean style about possible events in the immediate aftermath of her reign.
There was a scene in that drama in which, after a night spent clubbing, a freewheeling but troubled Prince Harry finds himself in conversation with the owner of a kebab stall. With the country both in mourning and political convulsion, the kebab man offers up the simple notion that “maybe she was what held it together”. The line resonated, even though those watching wouldn’t for a moment have thought that it was (or even should be) through any political action of the monarch herself. Indeed, one of the defining features of her reign has been the final divorce from any sort of political function, although powers might exist in the form of the Royal Prerogative, and her name is still invoked when elections prove indecisive and referendums take place. It has not been difficult, too, to intuit her attitude to Scottish independence.
Her obvious devotion to the Commonwealth has kept that institution alive in the face of indifference from her successive governments. The fact that its role is now discussed with renewed interest in political circles — that it is once again taken seriously as a possible part of Britain’s uncertain future — must be gratifying to her. Keeping it alive is probably one of her greatest personal achievements.
But otherwise she has been the least political of monarchs. Her father, George VI, invited Chamberlain on to the palace balcony on his return from Munich. A similar ill-judged act by his daughter is inconceivable. She has set an example of how a modern constitutional monarch should behave.
Her unifying function — “holding it together” — is accepted as symbolic, but the power of symbols, over time, is greater than a hundred changes of government. In ways that were quite unforeseeable at her succession, this function is becoming more, not less, important as the 21st century goes on and Britain faces increasing social, economic and even demographic division.
You don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone, the saying goes; justifying the monarchy on similar grounds has always proved a disadvantage for its defenders. By her longevity and her example, Elizabeth II has removed the need for such retrospective evaluation. Long may she continue to reign.