Despite our differences, Britain is united in its respect for Elizabeth II and the monarchy .
It is very unusual for the whole of Britain to unite in celebration. Election victories and football matches are essentially divisive occasions in this country, where those who do not support the winning party or team are left out, and feel resentful at the other side’s swaggering celebrations. The most glorious aspect of the Jubilee celebrations is that no one – except perhaps the most dogmatic and dour republican – feels left out. Everyone can participate. And it seems likely that, over the next three days, just about everyone will.
The Queen’s capacity to unite her subjects in admiration and respect for her and for the achievements of her reign is remarkable. Britain is a far more diverse country than it was in 1952, when she came to the throne. The fissures between us are more obvious, and in some ways deeper and sharper, than they were 60 years ago. Britons no longer share a single common culture. In 1952, the nation was still emerging from the shadow of the Second World War. Some goods were still rationed. Most of us wore the same clothes, ate the same food, and shared the same religion and amusements. In the years since then, parts of our cities have been transformed in ways which, in 1952, would not have been recognised as “British” at all. While we all enjoy a much higher standard of living, the gap between rich and poor is larger than it was in 1952. And resentments over immigration have increased, largely because in 1952, there had been very little immigration.
And yet, despite our differences, we are united in our respect for Queen Elizabeth, and for the institution that she embodies. She is the head of the Church of England, but far from alienating those who are not Anglicans, or even Christians, her religious convictions seem to comfort them. It appears that Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs feel much more comfortable with a monarch who has faith, albeit not their own, than with a secular political figure.
The Queen’s religious convictions are, however, about the only thing that the populace knows about her, apart from her fondness for her family, for horses, and for corgis. Her ability to remain above politics has been exemplary, and astonishing. She never gives any hint of what she really thinks about any political issue – or any issue at all, come to that. It means that she is able to unite, rather than divide, the nation, for everyone recognises, and respects, her utter impartiality on political matters: this is essential if a constitutional monarchy is to survive in the modern age. A hereditary monarch as head of a democratic state is an anomaly. Few nation-builders would dream of starting a democracy from scratch along these lines. But the continued survival of the British monarchy – a result of historical accident, and of the success with which revolutionary and republican pressures were defused during the 19th and early 20th century – has turned out to be a tremendous boon for the country. It has given us a unity and, indeed, a stability which plenty of republics lack.
Many democracies wish that they were able to temper the fickleness of popular will with an institution as free from partisanship as our monarchy. Many of them envy us for having the Queen as our head of state. And when you consider not only the compromised figures who fill that office in some other countries, but also some of the likely candidates as our head of state if we were to dispense with the monarchy, you immediately understand why.
As our poll today shows, the Queen is immensely popular with her subjects in Britain. Most of us believe that we will always have the monarchy. One third of us thinks that she is our greatest ever monarch, which makes her more respected today even than Queen Victoria.
The Queen’s astonishing work-rate is part of the explanation for her popularity. She may have unique privileges, but she works very hard for them: on a typical day, she spends three hours going through her red boxes. She attends endless hours of receptions, parades and official dinners. She conducts herself with grace and dignity through all of them, which is incredible given how tedious the whole process must frequently be, and how she must long, on occasion, to be able to skip it all and relax on her own. She is 86, an age by which most people have long gone into retirement. But she shows little sign of diminishing her demanding schedule.
Elizabeth II has become so perfect a symbol of what we value about monarchy that it is difficult to disentangle support for her from support for the institution of monarchy. But support for the institution depends critically on the nature of the individual occupying the throne. Public opinion can turn quickly if something happens to make people feel that the monarch is in some way “out of touch” – which is what occurred in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. That brief outpouring of hostility to the Windsors was quickly overcome, and has now been almost forgotten. But it was a reminder that the true affection of the British people is not a given – and the Queen has never treated it as such. She has been very careful to ensure that the monarchy has been, to use the ghastly but accurate phrase, “modernised”. The extent to which members of her family are supported by British taxpayers has been diminished; her own expenses have been curtailed; and she herself now files a tax return and pays income tax – a necessary, if slightly absurd, concession to egalitarian sentiments.
But in this Jubilee year, none of that matters: the nation, and the entire Commonwealth, can simply celebrate one of the most glorious reigns in our history. We all have reason to be grateful that our Queen – and the office that she holds with such dignity – offers stability, comfort and continuity in an age of dizzying change. Her sense of public duty and her extraordinary diligence provide an inspiring example. These are blessings, and not to be taken for granted.