Britain’s monarchy should have outlived its usefulness. Real political power long ago moved to the country’s elected Parliament.
Yet the monarchy, especially Queen Elizabeth II, seems to be in the midst of a renaissance.
That public interest in the royal family throughout the world remains strong – and mostly positive – can be attributed in large part to Elizabeth herself. (Cute royal great-grandchildren don’t hurt either.) On Wednesday she will have become the longest reigning British monarch in history, surpassing her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years and 216 days in the 19th century.
Elizabeth, who ascended to the throne in 1952 upon the death of her father, has been named in polls as Britain’s greatest monarch. That doesn’t sit well with many historians, who are much more likely to give that title to Elizabeth I, who in the 16th century fended off an invasion by Spain (the world’s superpower of that time), held together a country racked by religious strife between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and ushered in a “golden age” of peace, prosperity, and cultural achievement (think Shakespeare).
But would the monarchy still be held in general high regard today – and even exist – if Elizabeth II hadn’t exhibited her own remarkable qualities, including a selfless sense of duty? As British Prime Minister David Cameron remarked recently, the queen has been “a permanent anchor, bracing against the storms and grounding us in certainty.”
Americans look to the ideas contained in seminal documents – the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution – to define their national character. The queen’s job has been to be the fleshly embodiment of British values.
She has rarely failed in her duty. An exception occurred in the 1990s when she misread public sentiment and sought to observe the tragic death of Princess Diana in quiet seclusion and privacy. Only later did she realize that Britons were looking to her to lead the public mourning.
While from time to time members of the royal family have been accused of conduct unbecoming a royal, the queen herself has remained a paragon, a role model for how to live a demanding public life with grace and dignity.
Even though only a figurehead, Elizabeth has shown a “deft political sense” and leadership qualities during her reign as Britain’s empire evolved into a voluntary Commonwealth of Nations, British historian Andrew Roberts told NBC News. “She has a sixth sense for what is in the wind.”
Elizabeth has even proved to be a quiet feminist. She gave her backing to the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013, which now prohibits women from being passed over in the line of succession to the crown.
“This is a remarkable woman,” Mr. Roberts adds. “Not just because of her longevity, but because of her forward thinking on the political problems the monarchy might have.”
No end to her reign is in sight. Even from a strictly economic viewpoint, the royal family has become far too valuable to allow it to close up shop and turn in the keys to Buckingham Palace. Brand Finance, a valuation agency, has found the monarchy makes a net annual contribution to the British economy of more than $1.7 billion. That includes the royal family’s value to tourism and the premium prices that can be asked for goods endorsed by the crown through granting them a royal warrant.
In the 21st century, the queen’s brand seems to be stronger than ever.