Today at 5.30pm British Summer Time, Queen Elizabeth II became the longest reigning monarch in British history, overtaking the record set by her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria.
She still has some way to go to pass the longest reigning European monarchs, Austrian Emperor Franz Josef (1848-1916) and France’s Louis XIV (1643-1715). However, the latter doesn’t really count as he was only five when he became “king,” meaning that his mother and Cardinal Mazarin ruled in his place.
Thailand’s current king was crowned in May 1950 so he’s been around even longer than the British monarch.
A PBS documentary on the queen aired last week. The one-hour documentary is available on DVD. It’s part of the “In their own words” occasional series. There was one mistake in the program when a BBC broadcast announcing that “the king’s life draws peacefully to a close” was applied to her father, King George VI, who died in 1952. The recording dates to January 1936 when his father, George V, was dying. The queen’s father was found dead in bed on February 6th, 1952. He had been out hunting the previous day. Elizabeth and her husband were in Kenya, on a tour of the empire, when he died.
The monarchy goes back over one thousand years. It has evolved through the centuries into today’s constitutional monarchy. The system has worked very well, giving Britain and the other Commonwealth realms (which include Canada, Australia and New Zealand) an unparalleled period of political stability, without which economic progress is difficult to achieve.
The very complimentary documentary highlighted Elizabeth’s role as constitutional monarch, using her influence rather than authority in chaperoning the country for over sixty years. It’s been a time of unprecedented change, as was Victoria’s in the nineteenth century.
The program began with then Princess Elizabeth’s 21st birthday broadcast from Cape Town, South Africa. In her own words she pledged herself to serve “the great imperial family to which we all belong,” a reference to the Empire and Commonwealth, which included South Africa.
Immediately after these words were shown on the documentary, a royal expert then added a comment about her lifelong service to Britain.
There’s a blind spot here, which obscures Britain’s incredible decline during her reign. As she is a constitutional monarch, the blame for this decline rests with the politicians, especially the twelve British prime ministers who have served under her. Her Canadian, Australian and New Zealand prime ministers can also share some of that responsibility.
The fact is that the British Empire has gone and its successor, the Commonwealth (the “British” was dropped 50 years ago) is no more than a shadow of what it was. It may not even survive the queen’s passing. The queen remains Head of State of 16 countries and has 138 million subjects. She is also titular Head of the Commonwealth, an organization of 54 former colonies. It remains to be seen if Prince Charles will be able to hold it all together after he succeeds his mother.
Sir John Major, her ninth British prime minister, said in the documentary that throughout all the changes of the last six decades, the queen has been the one “constant” in the country, giving a sense of continuity and stability during monumental and significant changes. This is true, but it hides some painful realities.
The loss of empire saw a rapid decline in global power. The country’s military capability is about one-twelfth of what it was at the beginning of her reign – and continues to decline even under a Conservative administration. The queen’s international role remains at the core of British “soft power,” along with the BBC World Service and British aid. This soft power has replaced the strong military power it used to have.
With the empire gone, Britain entered the European Common Market (now the European Union), which has progressively taken away the UK’s independence. Under the EU’s freedom of movement rules, millions of people from other European countries have been able to move to Britain, changing the composition of the nation’s population.
Added to this has been mass immigration from Commonwealth countries like India and Pakistan.
The changes are so significant, it’s fair to say that the Great Britain she inherited in 1952 and the Great Britain of today are two very different countries. It’s amusing to remember that in 1949, when she was Princess Elizabeth, she spoke out against the evils of divorce. The nation would not take kindly to such comments today and the queen would not be qualified to speak on the subject anyway as her own family has seen a few divorces.
None of this detracts from the great accomplishments of Elizabeth II. She has set an incredible example of service. Her sense of duty is unsurpassed by anybody in any field. In her own personal private life she has set a fine example, never putting a foot wrong.
In many ways, the world was a better place when the Queen ascended the throne on February 6th, 1952 (the Coronation was in June the following year). At that time, she presided over the greatest empire in history. As countries were given independence, all too often they were taken over by self-serving bad leaders who destroyed much of what Britain had accomplished, enriching themselves by stealing from their own people. They were often from the lowest echelons of society, suddenly receiving absolute power, which they abused in every way.
I remember an incident 35 years ago at a time when Ghana, in West Africa, was going through a long period of political instability and economic chaos, I stopped to buy some food at the side of the road. When I opened my wallet, the lady who was selling me the items, saw a British bank note with the portrait of the queen on it. The lady sighed and said: “Ah, Queen Elizabeth. She used to be our queen. Now we have so many presidents, we cannot count them all. And we are in such a mess. And England still has the queen.” Stability is so important.
Two verses in the Book of Ecclesiastes illustrate this so well:
“Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child,
And your princes feast in the morning!
“Blessed are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobles,
And your princes feast at the proper time —
For strength and not for drunkenness!” (Eccl. 10:16-17.)
Britain has been greatly blessed with Elizabeth II as Queen.
As many are saying today: “Long may she reign!”