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For 63 and a half years, God has answered the ritualised request in Britain’s anthem to continue saving the Queen. It is thus reasonable to hope this arrangement will continue at least three more days. That being so, Elizabeth II will add one further record to her list of achievements.
Some time on Wednesday, the Queen will overtake her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria and become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. Since her father George VI died in his sleep, the precise moment of the present Queen’s accession is unknown. But at some point late on that day, fingers crossed, Elizabeth will reach 23,226 days, 16 hours and 24 minutes to become the record-holder.
The Queen will mark the day by officially reopening the long-closed Borders railway (opened 1849, closed 1969) south from Edinburgh, thus invoking both the Victorian connection and the currently fragile Scottish dimension.
She long ago surpassed the other members of the 50-year-club, George III, Henry III and Edward III. However, as happens when one talks of, say, “Britain’s tallest building” or “Britain’s fastest sprinter”, this is less impressive in international terms.
She is not even now the world’s longest-reigning monarch: Bhumibol, the reigning King of Thailand, inherited his throne as an 18-year-old in 1946. And the all-time global list on Wikipedia offers two who reigned more than 80 years: Sobhuza II of Swaziland (1899-1982), who reputedly had 70 wives and 210 children; and Bernhard VII, ruler of the German state of Lippe from 1429 to 1511, aka “Bellicosus” — Bernhard the Bellicose.
One of Victoria’s eternal attributes seems to be eluding the Queen. The word “Victorian” instantly conjures up a lost world of frock coats, steam railways, industrial and geographical expansion, Dickensian squalor, religious fervour and rampant hypocrisy — an era when Britain set the tone for the world, and ruled much of it.
In the years after 1952, there was much overheated talk of “a new Elizabethan age” but the developments of the past 63 years have been too dynamic — from primitive televisions to Twitter feeds — and too protean to be summed up in one word. And Britain’s role has been too shrunken for its monarch to be regarded as the embodiment of the global era.
Nor can Elizabeth match great-great grandma as a reformer of the monarchy. The throne Victoria inherited was thoroughly tattered: her two sexually wayward predecessors, George IV and William IV, had turned royalty into a joke. William had 10 children with an actress but no legitimate heir. When his niece Victoria took over as an 18-year-old in 1837, the purpose of monarchy was increasingly unclear: the Reform Act five years earlier had made Britain an incipient democracy. She and her husband Prince Albert had to transform the nature of royalty, and did so.
“Under Albert’s influence, she created this image of a family monarchy,” says Stephen Bates, author of a new study, Royalty Inc — Britain’s Best-Known Brand. “It offered middle-class respectability, like us but not like us.” Albert and Victoria provided the family all right (nine legitimate children and none born off-piste) and skilfully let the nation share their pleasure, embracing the press, the newfangled art of photography and what we would now call PR.
Even so, Victoria plumbed greater and more regular depths of unpopularity than Elizabeth II. She became invisible after Albert’s death in 1861 and was still in seclusion 10 years later, by which time republicanism was starting to take hold. At that point, the future Edward VII contracted typhoid and was near death. A wave of sympathy spread across the Empire, and then rejoicing when he recovered. The republican threat receded and has not returned.
Elizabeth has never faced such an existential threat. Her popularity was established at once, in the fawning Fifties, and even the crises surrounding Diana, Princess of Wales now seem like mere blips. She faced no real political threat — if anything, her Labour prime ministers have grovelled more than the Conservatives. The Queen has always outpolled any politician, a position likely to encourage complacency. Under more pressure, the Palace would have become leaner and more responsive far quicker than it did.
One human cannot now truly represent the whole of even one country, never mind the 15 others of which she remains Queen. But Elizabeth does seem to encompass many qualities to which we might all aspire: integrity, calm, good sense, longevity and dynasty. One day, we will all have to sing “God Save the King”. It will be difficult to break a 63-year plus habit.