David Hayes: Elizabeth II: A Long Reign and a Lost Republic

Roundup: Talking About History

David Hayes is Deputy Editor of openDemocracy. He writes each month for Inside Story.

“LUCK is a synonym for ruthless adaptation.” When the Polish philosopher Stanislaw Brzozowski (1878–1911) wrote these words, Europe’s clutter of imperial houses commanded the fate of peoples not only across the continent but also in much of the world beyond. Most would fall in the cataclysms of war and revolution to come, though a handful of small-state northern variants (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium) survived by remaining on the right side of their compatriots through the century’s traumas.

Britain’s monarchy alone appears to have performed another trick in the face of recurrent social and political convulsion: finding in it material from which to carve new roles and rationales (including even a name), while continuing to live and breathe in the grand manner of old – and retaining along the way, even through its worst of times, broad public support.

So at least runs a plausible summation of the fair outlook Queen Elizabeth II might observe as she waves from the Buckingham Palace balcony to the crowds assembled in The Mall during the centrepiece weekend of her “diamond jubilee” in early June 2012. By strange alchemy or divine grace (and the Queen is a believer as well as “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”) – and backed in any case by more than a touch of steel – the celebrations of her sixty years on the throne find the House of Windsor in as favoured a condition as could reasonably be wished.

All is becalmed. The long crisis of the 1990s – the agreement, under pressure, to pay income tax, the Windsor Castle fire, media disasters, marital troubles, and above all Princess Diana – is a receding memory. A once-in-an-aeon constellation has appeared: promising marriages (notably that in 2011 of handsome Prince William, second in line to the throne, to the comely Catherine Middleton), youthful replenishment, quiet modernisation of the “royal household,” skilful PR, an indulgent media, unthreatening political circumstances (including inert republicanism), and welcome freedom from scandal. Each of these would be encouraging in isolation, but their coincidence – and blessed reinforcement in the warm public sentiments that cluster around a major anniversary – make 2012 close to the best of times for the institution.

Yet if this is indeed the view from the balcony, an astute monarch with a strong sense of family history will also be aware of how much “The Firm” has had to change to secure this position – and how rare and fragile such moments of grace can prove to be.

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AFTER all, the early years of the Queen’s reign were bathed in a similar hue. Princess Elizabeth, heir to the throne by virtue of the “abdication crisis” of 1936–37, had become sovereign at the age of twenty-five on her father’s death in February 1952 and was crowned in an elaborate ceremony in Westminster Abbey in June 1953. The atmosphere of the coronation spoke of the profound determination of the high Anglican and royal establishments to reassert their legitimacy and power after the unsettling post-war years of austerity, a reformist Labour government (1945–51) and the modernist aspirations embodied in the Festival of Britain (1951). But if the heavy armoury of “invented tradition” was deployed in the cause of conservative reassertion, the event entered popular awareness thanks to a modern vehicle: television.

The crowding of families and groups of neighbours around the communal set, many bought specially for the occasion, made the 1953 coronation Britain’s first “shared national experience” through the medium. Thus, in the terms of David Cannadine’s pioneering analysis, television became entwined with royal ceremonial and sprouted another invented tradition. What lodged in the collective memory was less the cod-medieval rituals than the glittering procession, “the dress,” the exotic colonial guests defying the London downpour. The framing of a new kind of pact between royalty and people, mediated by ever more powerful broadcasters, began at that moment.

The spectacle of a young, female monarch at the head of an old, imperial state invited talk of a “new Elizabethan age.” The phrase may never have caught on, though it did express an implicit longing for social regeneration that other indicators of the early 1950s – the end of food and fuel rationing, slum clearance, a consumer economy – seemed to herald. But Britain was also a “great power,” carrying the heavy burden of wartime debt, colonial responsibility and Cold War military expenditure, and this increasingly constrained its capacity to remake itself. The exercise of royal diplomacy as British statecraft acquired its modern form in this period, notably in the Queen’s epic tour in 1954 of the Empire-becoming-Commonwealth. The enormous crowds in Australia in particular made the tour “by far the biggest event ever in Australian history,” according to the scholar turned broadcaster Jane Connors, who saw it as a test case of “popular monarchism.”

There were already faint shadows on the crown in these early, golden years. Many in Scotland beyond the ranks of historians and nationalists were angered that the routine use of “Elizabeth II” elided the fact that the realm of the sixteenth-century Elizabeth had been England alone (and, by the way, that the “virgin queen” had chopped off the head of Mary, Queen of Scots). Some red pillar-boxes with the offending crest were blown up to make the point that, north of the border, the young queen was “Elizabeth I.” The shadows lengthened in November 1956 with the exposure of Britain’s deceitful collusion with France and Israel to attack Nasser’s Egypt and seize the Suez, precipitating a shameful retreat and a convulsive political scandal (as well as giving the Red Army a free hand to pulverise Hungary’s revolution)....

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