“If you can keep your head when all about you, Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two imposters just the same”
Alphen, Netherlands. 9 September. She is Head of State of Antigua, Australia, Barbados, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Great Britain, Grenada, Grenadines, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. She is Head of a Commonwealth of 53 states, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and Supreme Head of the Church of England. A couple of years ago I flew around the world and on only one occasion did her likeness (some more flattering than others – get your act together Canada!) not adorn the local currency. On the one occasion when she was not staring back at me from a banknote I had landed in Singapore which until recently did have her ‘image resplendent’ (I think that is monarchy speak) on the local currency. Today, having reigned for 63 years, 216 days (or 23,226 days if you will) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Northern Ireland passes her ancestor Queen Victoria to become Britain’s longest serving monarch.
Her Majesty now sits at the pinnacle of a list of good, not-so-good and downright potty monarchs stretching back to before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. Queen Victoria (1837-1901) was the arch-‘Victorian’ who ruled the waves and reigned for 63 years and 215 days; George III (1760-1820) who was by and large insane and German in equal measure, but did at least expel Johnny Yank from the Empire for persistent bad behaviour and reigned for 59 years, 96 days; James VI of Scotland (1576-1215) of whom I have no idea whatsoever reigned for 57 years, 245 days; Henry III (1216-1272) who oversaw the first modern parliament reigned for 56 years, 29 days; Edward III (1327-1377) gave the French repeated thrashings (always good) and reigned for 50 years, 147 days; whilst William I of Scotland (1165-1214), another of those distinctly dodgy and utterly forgettable Scottish monarchs reigned for 48 years, 360 days. Finally, there was 'Gloriana', Her Majesty’s namesake Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) beloved of Marlowe, Spencer and Shakespeare, who put Philip II’s Spanish Empire in its place by generally sinking it, and confirmed England as a Protestant land and proto world power, she reigned for 44 years and 127 days.
Her Majesty also makes me somewhat different. Indeed, I am an unusual citizen (no longer subject) of an unusual democracy for although I was born in the late-1950s she is the only head of state I have ever known. And, it is precisely her longevity that is her achievement, allied to her iron self-discipline. Indeed, it is precisely because in many ways Her Majesty is a woman of the 1950s that she has succeeded as a monarch. She belongs to a generation which believed in duty, honour, patriotism and discipline. As such the Queen has been a rock of stability in a sea of change (ouch), not least in the country of her birth Britain, which has undergone profound some would say massive change during her long reign. Nor has change been confined to Britain. The world of her coronation on 2 June, 1953 was very different from the world we know today and still she and the monarchy endures.
She has survived because she understands the ‘constitutional’ bit in constitutional monarchy. In spite of the image of enduring and endurance she conveys she has had the political savvy to move with the times when she has been required to and knows full well the boudary between her role and that of the many prime ministers who have served her. That is why she still ‘reigns’ over 16 states that have also undergone massive change since she was crowned.
There are aspects of the 'Firm' with which I am not so enamoured. The Royal Household too often to my mind surrounds itself with an aristocratic circus and assorted hangers-on that anchors a class system that still blocks aspiration and assumes its own ill-deserved elitism. It is my firm belief that a country such as Britain and indeed all her realms must be champions of aspiration if they are to prosper in a hyper-competitive twenty-first century. Democracies need to be states in which all the talents can assume a reasonable chance of success in life irrespective of class, gender, race or orientation. That is patently not the case today.
Nor would I suggest for a moment that constitutional monarchies of the sort Her Majesty heads are suitable for every state. Indeed, there is an inherent and eternal tension between democracy and monarchy that can only ever be massaged over with fantasy, the spectacle of majesty. However, for all that I would not change my system of government. She is ‘my’ Queen and whilst much of the chattering elite routinely exaggerate what has become Britain's 'fashionable' decline and seem in an unseemly haste to replace it with a European something else that is at best unproven and at worst sinister Her Majesty is THE reminder of my country and why I still believe in it and its bizarre unwritten constitution for all its many faults. Yes, I am an unashamed British constitutional patriot and I make no apologies for that.
Perhaps I hang on to my out-dated patriotism because I had the honour of meeting Her Majesty. It was at Smith Lawn in Windsor Great Park during a polo match. For some reason I had decided I was going to test the bite strength of a line of polo ponies. Suddenly, this very nice lady suggested that putting my hand in a horse’s mouth was not such a terribly good idea. My parents stood bolt upright, I was five years old and the lady was Her Majesty.
However, the strongest argument I have ever heard for the Queen and the constitutional monarchy was not in carping Britain but in Australia. A couple of years back I was attending a ‘high-level’ dinner in Canberra which was brim-full of Aussie politicians. It happened that I was sitting next to one of Australia’s most well-known politicians and a staunch monarchist. Being my contrary Yorkshire-self I ventured to suggest that in this day and age it would surely make sense for Australia to become a republic. “No mate”, said politico fired back. “If you want any proof you needed that a republic would not work for Australia look around this room. Would you elect any of these bastards to be head of state?” Fair point.
Thank you, Your Majesty, for 63 years and 216 days of exemplary public services. Long indeed may you reign over me.