LONDON: When Britons sing ‘God Save the Queen’ over four days of celebrations to mark Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the throne, monarchists may have cause to roar the line ‘long to reign over us’ more heartily than ever.
Polls show the much-loved 86-year-old sovereign remains enormously popular and cherished by Britons, but questions linger about the future of the monarchy when she is gone and her already 63-year-old son Charles becomes king.
Republicans, royal watchers and even those with strong sympathies for the monarchy say that the future may pose a king-sized problem for an institution which relies on personal public appeal to stay relevant in the modern world.
“Monarchy is only as good as the people doing the job,” said royal biographer Robert Lacey. “The British have cut off the head of their king, the British have lived as a republic for 11 years under Oliver Cromwell. We could do it again.” Elizabeth became queen aged 25 on February 6, 1952 on the death of her father George VI, while on tour in Kenya with her husband Prince Philip. Winston Churchill was her first prime minister.
She inherited the throne from an enormously popular king, whose reputation for steadfast duty helped the royal family overcome the scandal of Edward VIII’s abdication for the love of a divorced American and endeared itself to almost every strata of society during the course of World War Two.
Over time, Britain has evolved into a more egalitarian society, where the ruling class has had to make way for a burgeoning middle class, where places at Oxford and Cambridge are no longer reserved for aristocrats and the majority of hereditary peers have lost their seats in the House of Lords. Despite her auspicious beginnings, Elizabeth’s reign has not been all smooth sailing.
The 40th anniversary of her accession was a year she famously described as an ‘annus horribilis’ after three of her four children’s marriages failed and there was a fire at her Windsor Castle royal residence.
The death of Princess Diana, the divorced wife of Elizabeth’s son and heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, in 1997 did even more damage to the family’s public prestige. But while her children and other royals have at times blundered in and out of headlines with their marital woes, leading the family to be described as the ‘most dysfunctional in Britain’, Elizabeth has remained dignified and dependable.
Backed by a far more professional and sophisticated media operation, the royal family’s reputation has not only been restored from dark days of the 1990s but lifted to new heights.
The triumph of last year’s wedding of Charles’s eldest son Prince William to Kate Middleton, which saw more than a million people throng London’s streets and pulled in an estimated two billion viewers around the world, was testament to that.