An accidental monarch: the queen at 90
As she enters her tenth decade, Queen Elizabeth II is more popular than ever. She is respected around the world, even by people who dislike queens. What is the secret of her success?
Tomorrow Queen Elizabeth will start the evening by lighting a beacon, the first of 1,000, distributed around the world to mark her 90th birthday. There will ensue two months of celebrations, climaxing in a picnic for 10,000 on The Mall in June.
Indeed, the queen has much to celebrate. She is the oldest British monarch of all time, and her 63-year reign is the longest. She is immensely popular at home and abroad, even among those who would rather see the monarchy abolished.
Few can deny that she has played her role well. Unlike her husband Philip, she never makes gaffes. Unlike her sister Margaret, she has avoided scandals. Unlike her son Charles, she steers clear of politics. Unlike her grandson William, she cannot be accused of lazing about.
In fact, the queen does not do or say much at all, save perform her royal duties. And that, many believe, is the key to her success. She works hard, knows her place, and lacks the self-importance that marks so many leaders. She may have much to celebrate, but she is not the celebrating type – and people love her for it.
Her biographer Andrew Marr takes this theory one step further. He points out that, unlike most politicians, the queen spends her life meeting ordinary British people. She cares not about the fashionable tip of society, but about the rest of it. ‘She is,’ as Marr puts it, ‘the self-appointed president of the silent majority’.
This sense of duty to her subjects may have something to do with her strong Anglican faith. But according to Marr, it also stems from her knowledge that she is only queen by accident of birth. She does not believe in merit; only luck. Without it, she might have been a farmer or a nurse herself.
This, the theory goes, endears her to the masses, as it sends out the message that everyone – high and low – is equally deserving of respect, regardless of ‘success’. But does it really explain her popularity? Marr’s views have prompted much debate. Is he right?
Queen and country
Marr has a point, say some. In this age of grotesque inequality, the idea that you get what you deserve in life is falling out of fashion. Though she takes her work very seriously, the queen does not seem to take herself too seriously. She never acts as if she has earned her status. Compared with the arrogance of politicians, this is refreshing.
You are reading too much into it, reply others. Whether or not the UK is a meritocratic society, people like to think it is. Despite what Marr says, the notion that we are all equally powerless to shape our future is not an appealing one. There are many reasons to admire the queen: her patriotism, her piety, her sheer endurance. But a symbol of egalitarianism? Get real.
- Should the monarchy be retained or abolished?
- How meritocratic is British society?
- The queen will visit your neighbourhood tomorrow, and you have been appointed as her guide. Come up with a day-long itinerary of things to show her.
- Draw a timeline of the queen’s life, marking out 10–15 important events. Present the timeline to the class, explaining your choice of events.
Some People Say...
“You couldn’t call her a celebrity.”Andrew Marr on the queen
What do you think?
Q & A
- Sorry, but I simply don’t care about the queen.
- And you’re not alone. Yet the royal family still inspires fierce debate. On one side, republicans argue that they are a symbol of elitism and a waste of public money. On the other, monarchists claim that they help to unify the UK, and actually bring in money (via tourism).
- Is the monarchy here to stay?
- For now, yes. The majority like it, and of those who don’t, many think that getting rid of it isn’t worth the effort. Countries need a head of state: someone who represents the country abroad, resolves disputes within the government and so on. If we kicked the royals out, we’d have to appoint another to do their job, which would create new problems. That said, there is a vocal anti-royal movement in the UK.
- The Mall
- A long tree-lined avenue that leads from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace.
- Even among those
- According to an Ipsos MORI poll conducted in 2012, 90% of British adults are satisfied with the way the queen is doing her job. This surpasses the 77% who want the UK to remain a monarchy.
- The Duke of Edinburgh has a strong track record in unfortunate comments. For example, he once famously declared that ‘British women can’t cook’.
- Nowadays British monarchs are supposed to be politically neutral. The Prince of Wales has stirred up controversy with some of his ideas, and by writing private letters (later leaked) to British politicians, expressing his views on subjects from global warming to herbal medicine. Some see this as an illicit attempt to influence the government, while others argue that the letters are pretty harmless.
- Andrew Marr
- British journalist and broadcaster. He is arguably the most influential political interviewer in the country. His 2012 documentary The Diamond Queen offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the monarch’s remarkable reign.