By Michael Holden and Sarah Mills
Britain will on Sunday salute the 70th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II ascending the throne, but as the monarch celebrates another landmark, just how will her record-breaking reign be remembered?
To some commentators, her reign has been a ‘golden age’, reminiscent of that of her namesake Elizabeth I who ruled over England 400 years ago in what is considered one of the country’s greatest periods.
Others say the 95-year-old’s legacy is much less dramatic but nonetheless remarkable: ensuring the monarchy has survived in a time of huge social and economic upheaval.
“I think the queen’s played a blinder,” Anna Whitelock, Professor of the History of Monarchy at London’s City University, said.
“The definition of success for any monarch over time is to preserve the monarchy and ensure the succession. That is the primary job, and that’s what she’s done.”
Elizabeth ascended the throne aged 25 on Feb. 6, 1952, on the death of her father George VI, inheriting dominion over a Britain emerging from the ravages of World War Two when rationing was still in place and Winston Churchill was prime minister, as well as other nations spread across the globe.
Since then presidents, popes, and prime ministers have come and gone, the Soviet Union has collapsed, and Britain’s own once mighty empire has dissipated, replaced by a Commonwealth of 54 nations which Elizabeth was instrumental in creating, and whose success many regard as her greatest achievement.
“None of the other imperial powers have achieved that … and in Britain, huge social and economic changes have been carried through on the whole peacefully and consensually,” said Professor Vernon Bogdanor, an expert in British constitutional history. “That’s very remarkable.”
THE SECOND ELIZABETHAN AGE?
Elizabeth’s reign has often been compared – sometimes unflatteringly – to that of her namesake whose 44 years on the throne in the 16th Century are regarded as England’s Golden Age, when the economy grew, the country’s influence expanded, and William Shakespeare and other writers flourished.
“Some people have expressed the hope that my reign may mark a new Elizabethan age,” she said in her 1953 Christmas broadcast. “Frankly I do not myself feel at all like my great Tudor forbear.”
Having never given an interview or made her personal views on political issues known, her own assessment of her reign – the longest in British history – is hard to ascertain. A senior royal aide told Reuters she would regard her legacy as a matter for others to judge.
Constitutional historian David Starkey has said there would be no second Elizabethan age, as the queen did not regard her role as embodying a historical period, but merely doing a job.
“She has done and said nothing that anybody will remember. She will not give her name to her age. Or, I suspect, to anything else,” he wrote in 2015.
“I say this not as criticism but simply as a statement of fact. Even as a sort of compliment. And, I suspect, the queen would take it as such. For she came to the throne with one thought only: to keep the royal show on the road.”
Such an assessment, though, does not do justice to how she has performed her role and moved with the times, said Matthew Dennison, author of a recent biography of the queen.
“I would argue that it is virtually impossible in 21st century Britain for any one person to embody the aspirations, the anxieties, the identities of what is an immensely disparate society,” he told Reuters.
He said her determination to perform her role as well as she could and refraining from voicing any views that might cause offence, had given her a moral authority beyond anything she had inherited as monarch.
Constitutionally, the British sovereign now has few practical powers and is expected to be non-partisan.
However, historians say Elizabeth has wielded “soft” power, and made the monarchy a unifying, focal point for the nation amid great societal divisions, exemplified by her broadcast to reassure the public at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While above the political fray herself, she still meets the prime minister for a private weekly audience.
“They unburden themselves or they tell me what’s going on or if they’ve got any problems and sometimes one can help in that way too,” she said in a 1992 documentary. “They know that one can be impartial, so to speak. I think it’s rather nice to feel that one’s a sort of sponge.”
Former leaders have said her years of experience have proved of great help, allowing them to speak candidly without fear of their conversations ever being made public.
“You can be utterly totally frank, even indiscreet with the queen,” John Major, the British leader from 1990 to 1997, said.
Tony Blair, who replaced Major and was prime minister for a decade, said: “She will assess situations and difficulties and can describe them without ever … giving any clue as to political preference or anything like that. It’s quite remarkable to see.”
Some historians say the queen will be looked upon as the last of her kind, a monarch from a time of when elites commanded unquestioned respect. But she would still, perhaps, be one of the country’s greatest.
“There’s no doubt that she will be up there as one of the greatest monarchs not just for her longevity, but for the period of change which she has witnessed,” Whitelock said.
“And like Elizabeth I … equally seminal for Britain and also Britain’s place in the world.”