Support 100 years of independent journalism.

How the Queen’s sense of duty prevailed in an age of individualism

Elizabeth II’s 70 years on the throne have been defined by her conservatism. What happens when a new generation takes over?

By Andrew Marr

The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee marks… what, precisely? First, obviously, her longevity. No previous monarch in British history has been on the throne for 70 years. Elizabeth II has reigned for more than six years longer than Victoria, whose lumpy memorial guards the approach to Buckingham Palace. She is close to the record of King Bhumibol the Great of Thailand and only two years behind the all-time longest serving monarch, the Sun King himself, Louis XIV of France.

Longevity, however, is a fact of modern life, and the better off you are, the easier it gets. More than that, the Jubilee marks a real achievement: in all that time, not screwing up.

Yes, there has been a multitude of problems in the wider family but the Queen herself has reigned through crisis after crisis, bad times and good times, without saying or doing anything to cause embarrassment or political controversy. She has been calm, patient, dutiful. As the new century cartwheels forward, these relatively passive virtues seem ever more virtuous.

Neither they nor she are admired equally, either across the UK or across the generations. For older Britons, she is the country they have grown up in. She is a rare living link, and the most important one, to the Britain of the Second World War and the Attlee welfare state, as well as the last remnants of empire.

When she goes, many older Britons will experience trauma. Whenever it comes her death can hardly be a shock – she is 96. But for millions it will feel like the cutting of a living cord, a break in history. The United Kingdom faces so many challenges, including to its survival as a political unit, that when the second Elizabethan era ends the very ground will seem to move. Others, including many younger Britons, will wonder vaguely what all the fuss is about. Some will welcome the chance for a fresh start and to reappraise the institutions, hierarchies and social relations that the Queen’s reign has conserved.

Modern monarchy, neurotic about threats to its survival, tries very hard to be apolitical, or “above politics”. In the end, this is impossible. No matter how much the royals speak about diversity, the environment or mental health, the meaning of monarchy is inherently conservative. Any idea based on divinity and bloodline must be. Yet the Queen is not seen as a reactionary character. What has saved Elizabeth from being the gilded- bonnet mascot of the Conservative Party?

First, she clearly warmed to Labour leaders – Harold Wilson above all – and flinched from some of the more abrasive leaders of Tory radicalism – Margaret Thatcher in particular. Her genuine enthusiasm for the Commonwealth has made her less susceptible to the unbearable, condescending racism of so much of the rest of elite British society. Travelling relentlessly across the UK, she saw the dismal realities of “left behind” communities more clearly and earlier than many politicians.

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

[See also: How nostalgia fuels the culture wars]

Thus, she has indeed been more popular, and for far longer, than any political or religious leaders – and far more so than you’d expect from someone so extraordinarily rich, and so sphinx-like in her public utterances. A recent poll for the organisation British Future found two-thirds of this very diverse country were interested in the Jubilee, and more than half felt it could bring the country together.

And so, across Britain, whatever can be done is being done – apparently 1,775 street parties and another 1,458 public events, from Shetland to Guernsey and Belfast to Bognor. What celebrity can offer is being offered, from Elton John to a rumoured Spice Girls reunion – all the fun of the fair to go along with bonfires, specially created puddings and Union Jack cakes. There will be a balcony, not with everyone on it. There may be bearskins.

And yet over this hangs an air of melancholy that will not quite blow away. The Queen is not, perhaps, well. On the increasingly rare occasions when she is seen in public, at the races or flower shows, and grins, a wave of positive feeling still breaks around the country.

Her Jubilee is a national hurrah. But it is also, surely, the last hurrah and everybody senses it. One of her favourite sayings about her role has been: “I must be seen to be believed.” Well, she will be seen. But not very much, and not for much longer.

What, then, has been the deeper meaning of her reign? There can be few people who take the monarchical principle as seriously as it pretends to insist on being taken. In 2022 how many in the crowds waving flags go home thinking that a divine creator has selected a single bloodline to intercede for, lead and represent millions of others; that the Queen serves at the command of God; and that she and her family are therefore inherently better than the rest of us? To write out the formal ideology of monarchism is to cancel it. It requires a belief in bred-in-the bone hierarchy that is simply intolerable to the modern mind.

Yet the Queen means something. She summons up an emotional, almost instinctive, response in millions of people who believe themselves to be in all other respects modern and democratic. So, it is a call to – what?

Well, certainly, to a distant and a different way of being. Looking at the Queen’s life, it doesn’t take long to realise that she embodies instincts that are under threat in the contemporary world. Most of us are encouraged to express ourselves as vividly as we can. The highest good, we’re told, is to be as individual, as unique, as “me-myself-and-I” as we can make ourselves. I’m not saying this is a good thing; only that it is a ruling virtue in our competitive, consumerist world. And the Queen has been almost the opposite. She doesn’t express herself as herself. Hardly at all: as an individual she has willingly withdrawn into the pre-formed carapace of her role.

[See also: What will happen when the Queen dies?]

 The British monarchy is wildly flamboyant. In its exuberant palaces, annual military rituals, gold-thread-splashed ceremonial clobber and even its regular exhibitionist displays of dysfunctional meltdown, it is one great show-off of an institution. But the Queen herself is almost silent, most often expressionless in public, strictly traditional in dress. She is intriguing because she doesn’t tell us, ever, who she really is.

We’d like to believe that behind the mask there is a droll, biting, highly opinionated woman. But there is no evidence of that. People tell you about her wit but when you ask for examples, they almost always cite things they have said to her, rather than the reverse.

In all this, she has been a survivor of earlier ways of being. British culture, like other European and Asian cultures, was long based on the subservience of the individual character to the role, or job, required. People were born to be farmers, or leatherworkers, mothers, shopkeepers, clerks or priests. Until modern times this was a caste society. The good life was a life in which you performed the duties and tasks which had fallen to you – while also, of course, trying to look after those around you, and obeying the laws of God and man.

Does that sound weird? Even a little creepy? Insofar as it is possible to think ourselves back into earlier consciousnesses (some historians insist it isn’t) this appears to be roughly how many people thought for many generations. It was a way of being that was only upended with the arrival of romanticism, socialism, feminism, Freudianism and the other modern “isms”. But the Queen is pre-ism. She has chosen to serve her role rather than her individualism. Yes, of course, it’s a very grand role. But it’s hard to find many other examples in the modern world – beyond a scattering of hold-outs in religious communities and rural people who have doggedly turned their backs on modern times.

Is it ridiculous to suggest that this is one of the secrets of her popularity – that, in the midst of the swarm and buzz of consumerist individualism, we want to recognise the value of other, earlier ways of being alive? Modern times are so frantic and solipsistic. Put it another way, all our eggs are in one basket. She is a lonely egg in a different basket.

[See also: The making of Prince William]

I argued earlier that she has avoided being simply a symbol of conservatism. In a political sense that is true, and important. But it isn’t true in terms of her values of self-abnegation, duty, restraint, lack of self-pity and then, at the end of a long day, one Dubonnet and a bit more duty. These are not Tory values, of course. But they are conservative ones.

Any vigorous, living society has a constant competition between progress, (new ways of thinking, new technologies, new social relations) and conservatism, or traditional wisdom. The tension is all-important. Unless new machines, relationships and ideas are tested against what came before, they can run away with themselves too quickly.

The secret of healthy growth is the countervailing force which helps avoid mistakes and social breakdown. We don’t have a conservative political movement in the country, really, not in terms of values. These days it’s a loose confederation of populists, millionaires and economic ideologues. But we do have a highly ethically conservative monarch.

This does not seem to apply to the rest of her family. She knows she cannot go on forever. So far, however, she has maintained a stubborn refusal to acknowledge old age except in its unavoidable physical manifestations. When, in 2021, the Queen thanked the Oldie magazine for offering her their “Oldie of the Year” award her private secretary wrote: “Her Majesty believes you are as old as you feel, as such the Queen does not believe she meets the relevant criteria to be able to accept, and hopes you find a more worthy recipient.” It was an elegant refusal, the then 95-year-old was saying: “But I don’t feel old at all.”

Warm relations: Elizabeth II with the prime minister Harold Wilson, June 1969. Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Given what had happened to her recently this was extraordinary stoicism. She had lost her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, at the age of 99 in April, leaving her to rule alone. Prince Charles had been embroiled in financial controversy over the sale of access and honours. Prince Andrew, a friend of the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, was struggling (with the Queen’s financial help) against a US lawsuit – later settled – alleging child sexual abuse in the case of Virginia Giuffre. Further afield, Prince Harry was continuing a life of insubordinate Hollywood liberalism with Meghan. He and his brother William, second in line to the throne, were reportedly barely speaking.

How much can this family continue to unite the country? William, with his wife, Kate, is now seen as not just the heir but the saviour of the crown. The fervently monarchist British press agrees – Kate, sometimes with William, sometimes by herself, appears on almost as many front pages as Diana once did.

This cannot cheer up her father-in-law very much. Prince Charles was thinking hard about how to refresh the monarchy during the early 2020s as he began to focus on his accession as King. He had long wanted a smaller family to be the essence of “the firm”. He had observed growing unease in public opinion about the sheer cost of financing so many people who required private aircraft, discreet and lavish accommodation and, not least, round-the-clock protection. The Prince of Wales and his advisers had sketched out a ground-plan for British Royalty 2.0. As King, he and Camilla would occupy relatively modest quarters in Buckingham Palace, with the public invited in even more regularly. William and Kate would stand alongside the new king. As he grew older, the young Prince George would be moved closer to the centre. Each core royal would concentrate on a major popular issue: the environment, mental health, support for women and children. But the rest of the family – Charles’s siblings Andrew, Anne and Edward, their children and spouses, and all the uncles, aunts and cousins – would effectively be asked to retire to private life.

In many ways, this would be a welcome and long overdue modernisation. Monarchy today is so large and expensive, such a clattering, glittering, immodest spectacle, that it is becoming embarrassing. Charles’s idea would be to hand over the monarchy to his son in leaner, fitter shape.

[See also: Inside the acrimonious battle lines of the royal family fandom]

But when? It may be there are already tensions between Charles and William about the length of the former’s reign: could Charles be persuaded to announce that he would abdicate by the age of 80, for instance?

And Prince Charles’s idea for a more modest monarchy, appropriate to a much more modest country, contains its own dangers. Millions of British monarchists adore the glitter, pomp and ceremony. For them, the gilt state coaches and intimidatingly large palaces are a large part of the point. Take all of that away, and how much authority remains?

The Prince of Wales might cite the residual popularity of other less grand royal families, perhaps particularly in the Netherlands. But Britain has been used to monarchy acting differently. Thousands of charitable bodies, hospitals, and quietly hard-working publicly minded people have become used to the idea that when a building, bridge or new wing is opened, or dinner is organised to raise money, a member of the royal family will be present. Those who have done (more than) their bit in helping will get their day at the palace for a gong, a dutiful kneel, and some memorable photographs.

That’s how it is. Cut back the royal numbers too far, and there simply will not be enough bodies to go round. The institution will have to retreat from numerous unpublicised but much valued engagements and patronages; and that too will mean a loss of authority for monarchy as an idea.

When the Queen dies, the British monarchy will face a more general challenge to its popularity, one that is already evident even as the bunting goes up and the roads are closed for the Jubilee. The polling for British Future, mentioned earlier, also found that although nearly 60 per cent wanted to keep the monarchy for the foreseeable future, a sizeable minority – 25 per cent – wanted a republic declared as soon as the Queen died. Support for the monarchy is much less in Scotland. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, only 40 per cent backed it and among people from ethnic minorities, only 37 per cent. And consider, it may be easier to feel sentimental and romantic about a queen than about a king.

This is probably not the stuff of a republican revolt during Prince Charles’s briefer reign, but it is evidence that as Britain changes, monarchism is not woven indelibly into our imaginations. She is. Millions dream about her. Her image is all around us every day, from money to post-boxes and stamps to a thousand glossy publications. (Though even here change is nudging; there is no image of the Queen on contactless payments, or when you press “send” on an email.)

Queen Elizabeth II has kept monarchism alive and well during her long lifetime. That is a real achievement. Back in the 1970s, in the run-up to the Silver Jubilee, how many people would have predicted huge lines of cavalry with swords aloft, massive street parties, and continued support for the monarchy running deep into the new century? She did that, no one else. But after her, if not the deluge, then, without doubt, the debate.

[See also: New York’s hipster wars]

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Topics in this article: ,

This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special