The Guardian view on the Queen at 90: the time to discuss changes

Posted By: April 21, 2016

Editorial.Wednesaday, April 20, 2016
Elizabeth II’s long life has defined the modern monarchy. But a modern conversation about the ever-changing constitutional concordat ought to begin now
There has never been, and there may never be again, a British monarch quite like Queen Elizabeth II, who celebrates her 90th birthday on Thursday. She owes most of her uniqueness to a single cause: her longevity on the throne. This queen has now ruled for longer than any of her predecessors. This queen is now older than any previous monarch. This queen has been married longer. What is more, as she reaches her tenth decade, this queen also looks good for several more milestones yet.

Today’s monarchy can appear profoundly rooted in history and tradition. But that can be misleading. In our day, this is partly because Elizabeth II is the only monarch most of us have ever known, just as Prince Philip is the only consort and Prince Charles the only heir. None of this has changed since 1952, an increasingly immense span in an era in which political leaders and cultural icons rarely stay more than a decade at the top.

The truth is that over time the monarchy has always invented itself, and has been reinvented, as it goes along. Today’s monarchy reflects Elizabeth II much more than most of us pause to consider. In particular it reflects her lifelong readiness to do dutifully and adaptably the things that she and her advisers decided were expected of her, and our acceptance of that role. But the monarchy has also sometimes been reinvented by the country, not the court.

All this has helped to make the Queen seem an object of fixed familiarity, the familiarity surely more apparent than real, like no other public figure in modern Britain. Although the monarchy can unquestionably have an infantilising effect, it is hard to think of anyone in this country other than the Queen who is more widely respected on the personal level, even by some committed republicans and reflexive defiers of authority. This has helped make her a somewhat deceptive source of the enduring in an otherwise radically changed Britain, and a perhaps improbable force for national cohesion in an era of deepening divisions.


The Queen is said to believe that when the public looks at her they see someone who is honest and prosaic and not in some ways so dissimilar to themselves. That will seem a naive view to many, yet the years would seem to have vindicated it. The Queen may not be able to point to many major achievements as monarch, but she has made incredibly few mistakes either; the rows over her tax position and the challenges posed by Princess Diana in life and death are now increasingly distant exceptions. She has public ratings any politician would die for. She has done her strange, irrational and undemocratic job with a tact and judgment few people could match.

When the earlier milestones of her life and reign had been reached, there was an understandable reluctance to spoil the national party. It has seemed churlish – perhaps even unBritish – to ask too loudly the question that Jeremy Bentham posed about any law, custom or institution: “What is the use of it?” These earlier anniversaries have been occasions to acknowledge the unspectacular woman on the throne, the respect she enjoys and the pleasure she brings, rather than to reflect on the institution she embodies or to ask where the monarchy might be heading in a more democratic era. Very large numbers will again prefer it that way as the Queen reaches 90.

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Yet Britain should not forever defer the need to think about the future of the monarchy. We live in volatile times. We struggle with what it means to be British. The United Kingdom may soon pull up its drawbridge against its neighbours. It may split into some of its more ancient national components. The state religion which the monarch pledges to uphold has a weakening public hold. The longer the Elizabethan monarchy continues, the closer Britain comes to the point at which an institution that does so much to define it will also have to change.


This needs to be considered and debated. It cannot be assumed that the placid concordat between the public and the crown over which the present queen has presided will seamlessly survive under a different monarch. That would be especially true under a monarch who was a figure of controversy for any reason. It is too easily forgotten that, ever since 1688, the monarchy has evolved less to reflect the personality and whims of the monarch than to reflect the values, institutions and needs of the nation within which the monarch reigns. If such a system is to continue, or if it is to be replaced, modern Britain should now begin a modern conversation about how these inescapable changes should happen.