When the inhabitants of the United Kingdom and television audiences across the world celebrate Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee this weekend, one telling secret of her popularity is likely to be overlooked. As her most authoritative recent biographer, Robert Hardman puts it, “the Queen genuinely enjoys being Queen.”
That is not the dominant narrative about the “Firm.” Watch the Netflix drama series “The Crown” (regarded by millions of viewers as historical fact, rather than truth mixed with surmise and exaggeration), and you see a family in which personal feelings are forever sacrificed to the claims of duty. It presents a joyless, careworn monarch forced to overcome crisis after crisis over her seven-decade reign.
If modern monarchy is such a vale of tears, why didn’t the Queen hand over the reins to her eldest son and heir, Prince Charles, long ago?
The answer lies, in part, in her religious sense of vocation. The Queen also has bitter memories of her uncle Edward VIII’s abdication, which placed the crown on the unwilling head of her shy, stuttering father.
But mainly, Elizabeth likes doing the job. With some justice, she thinks she is good at it.
Others agree. In 2015, when President Barack Obama was invited to deliver a memorial address for former Israeli President Shimon Peres, he compared him to “giants of the twentieth century I have had the honor to meet.” One of those two giants, unsurprisingly, was Nelson Mandela, but the other was the Queen.
The giants were “leaders who have seen so much, whose lives span such momentous epochs, that they find no need to posture or traffic in what’s popular at the moment. People who speak with depth and knowledge, not in sound bites,” said the former president. And respect for the Queen is one subject on which Obama, Donald Trump and 11 other US presidents who have met her can agree.
Despite the recent loss of her husband and helpmate, Prince Philip, the Queen is visibly enjoying her return to public life, even if at 96 years of age most exerting duties will now fall to Charles, the Prince of Wales.
But if the royals are a “firm,” what would a fair assessment of its performance look like?
The main achievement is in managing Britain’s decline from the height of its global power. The Queen’s predecessors presided over an empire, which reached its territorial zenith at the time of her birth. She came to the throne five years after Indian independence. The loss of this “jewel in the Crown” was followed by independence for most of Britain’s former colonies.
While Britain’s status was dramatically changing abroad, it always seemed the same at home with the second Elizabeth sedately on the throne. An end of empire transpired without the turbulence that brought down the fourth republic in France and that roils Russia to this day.
Relations between London and the former colonies have been stiff at times and may well become more so, but the Queen has managed to keep the Commonwealth association of former colonies and dominions afloat by personal diplomacy. Hardman’s account notes that influential leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Hastings Banda of Malawi, all imprisoned by the British, pre-independence, nonetheless preferred her company to Westminster politicians.
And although she has been praised for keeping silent on matters of controversy (it is worth pausing to ask why is no male authority figure is so praised for holding his tongue), the monarch does take risks behind the scenes.
Elizabeth personally intervened to stop Kaunda denouncing Margaret Thatcher at the first Commonwealth summit hosted in an African country in 1979 after the diplomats failed, thus paving the way for the Lancaster House Conference, which ended white minority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her 2011 visit to Dublin was also a masterstroke for peace, with a walk on the pitch at Croke Park, the home of Gaelic football, where British forces killed 14 civilian spectators in 1920. Her speech in favor of reconciliation genuinely touched Irish hearts as no conventional politician’s could.
The following year, she was prepared to shake hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness, which must have strained her self-control given that 20 years earlier, the IRA had purportedly tried to assassinate her.
At home, the Queen has quietly modernized the rules of the royal game. She instituted walkabouts despite the fears of security staff. Laws of succession were changed to end male primogeniture. She kept a tight rein on her own budget when state spending ballooned and inflation let rip. Whatever the royals cost, they bring back into the coffers of UK Plc many times over in tourist and entertainment revenues.
The Union is now fraying in Northern Ireland and Scotland, but without her unifying glue, it might have already broken. Even Nicola Sturgeon, uncrowned queen of Scottish nationalism, is deferential.
Today, the British feel a sense of ownership about the monarchy. In the lexicon of dance that has become a cliche about the Queen, “she never puts a foot wrong.” But as the writer Nicola Shulman observes, “it is the Queen’s singular misfortune to be a prime ballerina with a corps de ballet of left-footed clodhoppers stamping on her toes.” She is an outlier in her family, setting a standard none of the rest can attain.
Her main errors have fallen closer to home.
She has been too indulgent of her prodigal second son, Prince Andrew, despite his scrapes that dragged her family’s name through the mud. And she waited three years to insist that Charles and Diana divorce after the latter’s BBC interview with Martin Bashir revealed that “there were three of us in this marriage.”
In some senses, life in the royal household is less about grandeur than survival. And that is also true of the institution itself. The purely rational mind will never understand the point of it — or her. But millions across the world intuit the monarchy’s non-rational power. As the former head of the Diplomatic Service, Lord McDonald, once put it, “She is dependable and dignified. Everyone wants to be associated with that.”
Behind the bunting, crown jewels and flypasts, the royals reflect the appeal of a universal family and a beacon of continuity in a hectic, unstable world. It’s Elizabeth II’s superpower — one she’s made all the more effective for wielding it quietly.