Leading article: The making of a more modern monarchy

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The monarch's Christmas message has been a staple of national life since George V recorded the first seasonal greeting from Palace to people in 1932. It successfully made the transition from radio to television, and from desk-bound formality to something just a smidgen livelier, when video clips of royal activities were incorporated. Now it has made its way on to the internet, via YouTube.

In a country that increasingly lacks fixed points of religion and culture, the Christmas message is firmly established in many households as an institution that makes a benign intervention somewhere between the pudding and the cake. As custom has it, the Queen surveys the past 12 months, and tries to capture something of the national mood. Fifteen years ago, her annus horribilis message offered a rare note of introspection.

But this year the 50th anniversary of her first televised Christmas broadcast it was understandable that she chose to look back rather further. At the weekend, she became the oldest monarch to reign over us, passing not only Queen Victoria, but George III. And this is only the latest royal landmark in a five-yearperiod studded with them. Last month, the Queen and Prince Philip celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary. A year last April, the Queen turned 80. And in 2002, the 50th anniversary of her accession, the culmination of the Golden Jubilee brought enormous crowds to The Mall for a joyous national pageant.

That occasion, and the public response to the death of the Queen Mother that preceded it, combined to mark a triumphal reversal in the fortunes of the monarchy which had languished since the death of the Princess of Wales. And they demonstrated that, whatever storms might lie ahead for the institution, it was far too soon to speak of republicanism, let alone revolution.

Since then, the Queen's stature has, if anything, been enhanced, thanks in large part to her personal qualities. She has earned the respect she undoubtedly commands by dint of an immutably serious and unostentatious approach to duty. With a few tiny hints of rebellion, she has remained steadfastly aloof from the vicissitudes of politics. And whatever ignominy the fast-living younger royals might sporadically bring upon the House of Windsor, she has been a model of discretion, while perpetually in the public eye.

Quite as noteworthy is the extent to which, for all her privileged and rarefied existence, the Queen has shared the social changes that have transformed the country during her reign. Family breakdown, divorce, wayward children and grandchildren have all come her way. She lost a relative, Earl Mountbatten, to terrorism. The still unconcluded drama of her daughter-in-law's death, and the spontaneous, emotional nation that was revealed beyond the stiff upper lip, prompted a perceptible change in her public manner.

In 1992 she became the first monarch to pay taxes. She has hosted a rock concert in her garden; she has (slightly) modified her accent. And now, as an octogenarian with a slightly scaled-back diary, she demonstrates the benefits of an active old age to generations of longer-living Britons who surely hope for the same.

As a newspaper, we have well-known misgivings about the monarchy. There is still far too much unearned wealth and privilege in this country; still too much land in royal hands; still too many royal relatives and retainers, benefiting from the public purse. If the monarchy is to survive in the modern age, it could learn much from the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

That it has proved as durable as it has, however, owes much to the calm sense of duty of the present Queen. She has been a force for continuity and stability, at a time when this was what our fast-changing nation needed.