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Long to reign over us? PROFILE: The Queen

What does the future hold for the troubled monarch, who is 70 tomorrow, asks Frank Prochaska
"The heart of kings is unsearchable," says Proverbs. Even in our intrusive, media-driven age, the phrase has application to Queen Elizabeth II. Her many biographers have treated her as though she were a public monument and not a living being at all. Clearly, she is dutiful and likes dogs, horses, the Commonwealth and her grandchildren, but this is hardly the stuff of a full-blooded biography. One of the few things that can be said about the Queen with certainty is that she has extraordinary self-control. Is there anyone else in the world so widely seen, yet so little known? Like Bagehot's royal magician, she has contrived to efface herself in her office, leaving friends and enemies alike to wonder and to fantasise.

A monarch's personality cannot be unaffected by its institutionalisation. The Queen's has taken on the baggage of her office. Indeed, one of the things that sets the Queen apart from her subjects is the weight of the past. Unlike most children she had a built-in reverence for age and history, which absorbed her individuality in the interest of the monarchy's greater good, in the certainty that she would have to abide by ancestral vocations and a fixed inheritance.

Her parents were, naturally enough, a formative influence. They passed on an exceptional sense of public service and a set of values that were inter-war, if not Victorian, in flavour. Her first public address, in May 1944, was to promote the Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children in Hackney, east London, a charitable institution named after her mother, where she pledged her support for voluntary traditions at a time when state intervention in welfare was growing by leaps and bounds.

Like her father and grandfather before her, Queen Elizabeth II has sought to provide both a unifying symbol of the nation and a benevolent image that would offer a focus for civil society. Middle England found the monarchy a theatre of loyalty, which gave the nation's disparate elements a sense of belonging, unity and purpose. The reverence for monarchy encouraged people to feel that they were part of an unfolding historical narrative, and not simply dedicating their lives to mammon.

In recent years, such sentiments have begun to dissolve. Tabloid invention and the self-destructive tendencies of members of the Royal Family have led to a resurgence of republicanism. Yet there may be a greater, long- term threat to the monarchy - the acceleration of cultural change.

New technologies, demands for institutional efficiency, European union, ethnic diversity, and the globalisation of culture threaten to undermine the historical narrative so long identified with British royalty. Interest in traditional forms of British history, so often taught around kings and queens, shows signs of collapsing into heritage.However much attention she may give to modern life (and she is always opening institutions and inspecting innovative technology), she is bound to carry a weight of the past with her and feel to many that she remains in the 1950s.

As so much of the monarchy's mystery has been dissipated by the decline of deference, royal misdemeanours, and the malice of the media, it seems likely that the monarchy will be judged in future on more practical grounds: the benefits it brings society. As the Queen knows, the Crown's bedrock of support has shifted over this century from political circles to the armed services and especially the charitable sector. Such a shift was at least partly a policy designed by palace advisers and implemented with flair by Prince Albert, Edward VII and George V. The Queen has added her own touches to the tradition, for instance the sizeable contribution to the fund set up to commemorate the murdered headmaster Philip Lawrence.

The most important development has been its growing identification with worthy causes and voluntary institutions. As the Crown's political power declined, members of the Royal Family forged a new and popular role as patrons, promoters, and fund-raisers for the deserving and underprivileged. This humdrum charitable activity has become more important than the "dignified" duties of the monarchy. Through philanthropic work at home and abroad, the Queen has been able to swim with the tide of post-war and post-imperial social currents - egalitarianism and internationalism - and helped to disengage the Crown from the old ruling class in the minds of the public.

Today, the dutiful members of the Royal Family spend more time on good works than on anything else - there were about 2,000 royal charitable engagements in 1994. The Crown's patronage list extends to more than 3,000 organisations (the Queen alone has 800). Voluntary work is the "efficient" part of monarchy. As the historian David Cannadine remarked, "charitable activity has become the place where the royal culture of hierarchical condescension, and the popular culture of social aspiration, have successfully merged."

The Queen gave away pounds 208,385 from her private income in 1994 to voluntary causes. An educated estimate would be that the extended Royal Family's patronage is worth at least pounds 100m a year to the voluntary sector, probably much more. Such sums have a wider significance when put in the context of the cost of the monarchy to the taxpayer (pounds 78m on 1990-91 figures). If a republic were to be declared, would or could a president carry out 2,000 charitable engagements a year to such effect?

The Queen's credentials as a social democrat should not be underestimated. One of the strongest arguments in favour of retaining a monarchy is that by propping up so many voluntary societies it acts as a defender of civic life and liberty, a bulwark against the arbitrary tendencies of government. The likely failure of any government to conquer social ills, combined with the sense of individual powerlessness that will arise from European union and the growth of a vacuous global culture, should provide fresh opportunities for the monarchy to ally itself with popular causes beyond conventional politics.

The best hope for the future of the Crown will probably lie in the development of its social policy - the active promotion of civic welfare, social pluralism, and the associational democracy so dear to the Victorian royal family. The question for the Queen is whether she can persuade her heirs to serve likewise.

The writer's `Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare Monarchy' is published by Yale University Press.