Elizabeth II, who surpasses Queen Victoria as our longest reigning monarch today, is the best advertisement possible for a thoroughly bad idea: the hereditary principle. During her reign she has steered the monarchy through difficult times. The most dangerous of these came with the public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 – or rather the public’s revulsion at the way they perceived the Palace as being in some way uncaring in the aftermath of that tragedy. For the Queen it was essentially a family matter and a private one at that; for the public it was so much more. For her Prime Minister at the time, Tony Blair, it was a moment for him to offer her sound advice. She, as a studied constitutional monarch, chose to follow that advice. Between them, they saved the House of Windsor.
During wars, riots, terror, economic turmoil, huge social change and the dismantling of an empire, as well as joyful jubilees and royal weddings, the Queen has remained a symbol of constitutional continuity, a benefit to the nation that is sometimes underestimated. She rarely gets things wrong – though for some reason, she seems compelled to wade into the debate on Scottish independence every so often – but has got it right much more often.
But this is also a moment to reflect on the many less impressive individuals who have occupied her position, not least her uncle, Edward VIII, whose private habits and reactionary political instincts threatened much trouble before he was forced to abdicate. There have been plenty of other weak, unwise and reckless kings and queens. As the late Tony Benn once remarked, no one would agree to be treated by a dentist whose sole qualification is that their father or mother was a dentist before them. The hereditary principle is flawed, and even Elizabeth II hasn’t been able to confound that.
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