The Queen’s record-long reign has seen Britain’s greatest time of change
On Wednesday the Queen will become the longest-serving British monarch. The 63 years of her reign has seen a decline of empire as well as fluctuations in royal popularity
Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland, in 2014. Photograph: Getty Images
When Elizabeth II was crowned – the sixth female monarch since the Norman conquest – the world lit up in her favour. “Let us hope that we are beginning a new Elizabethan age no less renowned than the first,” said Clement Attlee.
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But instead Elizabeth has presided over the greatest period of change in Britain’s history – and rather than the country growing bombastic, in Victoria-style empire fashion, it has become more anxious and seen its power and influence drop. The monarchy has been forced to change too; and the future of both is much less easy to predict than it seemed when the Queen came to the throne.
On Wednesday, at 5.30pm, Elizabeth will become the longest reigning British monarch when she surpasses Victoria’s record of 63 years and 217 days. Although she will be the world’s longest reigning female monarch, Elizabeth has some way to go before becoming the longest reigning monarch – that is Sobhuza II of Swaziland, who reigned for 82 years. Even in Europe, the French are streaks ahead, with 18th-century Sun King Louis XIV at a sturdy 72 years and three months.
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The press is set to descend on Tweedbank, where the Queen will open the Borders Railway, the longest domestic railway to be built in Britain for more than 100 years. The Palace had initially intended the day to pass quietly, but now television crews have been given permission to broadcast from the lawn of Buckingham Palace for the first time.
On 2 June 1953, royal ceremony was similarly opened to TV in a way never considered before. Televising the coronation was vetoed by both the Palace and Winston Churchill – but they were forced to bow to public opinion. TV ownership doubled and more than 27 million Britons crowded into their neighbours’ living rooms to watch the show.
On the same day, the news came through that Sir Edmund Hillary had conquered Everest. Britain seemed unstoppable. People danced, dressed up as televisions and Everest, high on sweets made with sugar that Churchill had briefly taken off ration. Another flush of empire seemed imminent.
But in reality the empire was in decline. Between 1945 and 1965 the number of colonial people ruled by the British monarch plunged from 700 million to five million. In 1956, just three years after the coronation, the Suez canal crisis and Anthony Eden’s humiliation ended all notions that Britain was a world superpower
Queen Elizabeth II in an official photo in February 1952, when she acceded to the throne. Photograph: Apic/Getty Images
The Queen cherishes the importance of the Commonwealth. But the Jamaican prime minister suggested in 2012 that she wished to move towards having a Jamaican head of state – and the New Zealand prime minister noted during the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2014 that it was “probably inevitable” that the country would become a republic. Scotland may still leave the union during the Queen’s reign.
Britain is among the richest countries in the world – yet around a quarter of its children live in poverty. We still have a global influence much larger than our relatively small population – including a place at the G7 table. But whether such an influence will remain if the Commonwealth contracts and we leave Europe is difficult to predict.
“The coronation was like a phoenix time,” said the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret. “Nothing to stop everything getting better and better.” But she left the ceremony and, while waiting for her carriage to Buckingham Palace, flicked fluff off the lapel of her father’s former equerry, Peter Townsend, a moment of intimacy that alerted the world’s press to their clandestine romance.
The newspapers turned their attention from lauding the new Gloriana to charting the shocking possibilities of Margaret marrying a divorced member of the household. It was the beginning of an unprecedented focus on the royals and their complicated private lives – one that Elizabeth, who fell in love with her future husband at 13, has found difficult to comprehend at times.
It seems almost quaint now that the 1969 BBC documentary, The Royal Family, was seen as excessively invasive, undermining the magic of monarchy with shots of the royal family at the breakfast table. For surely nothing could tear the veil of the royal image of perfection more than the events of the 1990s, when charting the breakdown of Charles and Diana’s marriage became a national obsession. The publication of Andrew Morton’s Diana, Her True Story in June 1992 prompted pages of criticism that the royal family was aloof and isolated, even in previously loyal newspapers. By the end of the year, the book had sold a staggering four and a half million copies – and the Queen agreed that Charles and Diana should separate.
The Queen and Prince Philip the day before the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. Photograph: Mike Hollist/Daily Mail /REX
Even the Economist dubbed the monarchy “an ideal whose time has passed”. But the royal family limped on – and then came the terrible death of Diana in Paris in 1997. The Queen wanted to remain in Balmoral to maintain her routine for William and Harry – but the nation was furious. They wanted her presence and they wanted her to speak. “Show us you care, Ma’am,” cried the Express. Courtiers had to reverse their initial choice of a private commemoration and give Diana a state funeral.
The Queen bowed to public demand and flew to London the day before the funeral, and went out among the crowds. She gave a speech praising Diana as an “exceptional and gifted human being” and she said that there were “lessons to be drawn from her [Diana’s] life and the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death”. There were indeed lessons to be drawn. The royal family was going to have to throw off any suggestion of coldness or entitlement.
The younger royals have brought a new popularity to the royal family, and the Queen’s willingness to play ball with the media – agreeing to look as if she were jumping out of a helicopter at the Olympic opening ceremony in 2012– has created sympathy where once there was resentment. Affection for the Queen herself is strong, but there has been questioning of costs and aspects of her family’s behaviour, and the balance between public interest and press intrusion is perennially troubled.
“Women can – and must – play a leading part in the creation of a glorious Elizabethan era,” wrote a 27-year-old Margaret Hilda Roberts, later to become Margaret Thatcher, on the eve of the coronation. Women have indeed played a greater role in society – but the word to summarise the second Elizabethan era would be “change” rather than “glory”.
In the 63 years since the Queen came to the throne, the world – and Britain – has radically changed. Our global influence has certainly declined, and the postwar notions of self-sacrifice and restraint are rejected as outdated. The Queen’s constancy and longevity have gained her great respect across the world – as has her willingness to understand the altering mores of her country. The royal family have also had to embrace change. And over the years to come, one thing is for certain: if the monarchy wishes to stay relevant and in power, it will have to change more.