The Queen promised in her broadcast on her 21st birthday, 21 April 1947, “that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service”. She has made good that vow with such indefatigable modesty, good humour and dutifulness that even the most puritannical republicans among us generally realise that to attack her would be to damage their cause.
Over the next four days we shall thank her for a lifetime of service. Hearts will be raised by grand ceremonies, but also by the less glamorous pleasures of tea, cake, bunting and a friendly word with neighbours.
And the republicans will not understand what is going on. They draw the wrong conclusion from this spectacle of a monarch triumphant and beloved, which they suppose means that British voters are somehow less free than those who live in a republic such as France, Germany or the United States.
That error was not made by Clement Attlee, in many ways the most admirable of all Labour leaders. In a piece published in The Observer on 23 August 1959 (and reprinted in Attlee’s Great Contemporaries, edited by Frank Field), Attlee observes that a monarch “is a kind of referee”, and goes on:
“The monarchy attracts to itself the kind of sentimental loyalty which otherwise might go to the leader of a faction. There is, therefore, far less danger under a constitutional monarchy of the people being carried away by a Hitler, a Mussolini or even a de Gaulle.”
And he later remarks in the same piece:
“the greatest progress towards the democratic socialism in which I believe has been made not in republics but in limited monarchies. Norway, Sweden and Denmark are probably the three countries where there is the highest degree of equality of well-being.”
How right he was. Democratic socialism is not incompatible with constitutional monarchy. It might even be protected by it, for the monarch, to whom the armed forces, judiciary and other organs of the state pledge allegiance, occupies the space a dictator would need to occupy after a coup d’état.
A monarch who stands above politics and commands popular support is a guarantor of freedom, not an obstacle to it.
This was already apparent in the Victorian period. Bagehot referred to England (then generally treated as a synonym for Britain) as a “disguised republic”. Frederic Harrison, writing in 1875, declared;
“England is now an aristocratic Republic, with a democratic machinery and a hereditary grandmaster of the ceremonies.”
Lytton Strachey wrote of “the royal republic of Great Britain”, while George Orwell referred to the “crowned republic”.
When they attack the monarchy, republicans distract themselves from their true purpose, which is most often to persuade the voters to accept a not very popular form of socialism.
Outside the ranks of the intelligentsia, those voters tend to be sceptical about politicians. They like it that the highest place in the state is occupied not by some candidate who has at last abandoned the egotistical quest for power – Tony Blair, say, or Michael Heseltine – but by an individual who inherited the position.
The Queen did not expect, as a young child, to succeed to the throne. Nor did her father, the Duke of York, for his older brother, the Prince of Wales, would become King when George V died, and was likely, in due course, to get married and have children.
In 1936, George V duly died, the exact timing of that event determined by his physician, Lord Dawson of Penn, and the Prince of Wales succeeded to the throne as Edward VIII. He indicated, however, that he wished to marry Wallis Simpson, an American who had already been divorced once and was now married to Ernest Simpson, a businessman.
Some people objected to the King marrying a woman who had two former husbands still living, while others were more appalled that she was an American.
Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, took soundings and informed Edward VIII that the proposed marriage was out of the question, insisting as he did so that “in the choice of a Queen the voice of the people must be heard”.
So Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry the woman he loved, and his brother the Duke of York became George VI, and acted as a conscientious monarch until his death in 1952, at the age of only 56.
His older daughter, the present Queen, has continued this tradition of conscientious monarchy, which in many respects had been set by her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, a woman with a personality of “irresistible potency” (Lytton Strachey) who came to be regarded by her subjects as the epitome of middle-class respectability.
Victoria, and the Victorians, were reacting against the loose manners of an earlier age, including the loose manners of her Hanoverian father and uncles.
The present Queen saw the inauguration, in the 1960s, of a new period of loose manners. In 1952, when she ascended the throne, the Second World War was a recent memory, and the officer class was firmly in control.
Attlee had served with distinction in the First World War. So had Winston Churchill, who in 1951 had led the Conservatives back into power.
The Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, was a gifted naval officer, mentioned in dispatches during the Second World War. For a short time, before the untimely death of her father, Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, enjoyed a relatively normal life as the wife of an able and ambitious naval officer.
All that changed in 1952. She had to become Queen, and he had to give up his career. They buckled down and got on with it.
The start of her reign was a period of excessive deference, which yielded in due course to outrageous impertinence.
The media from the late 1950s became less and less deferential; in due course more and more shameless. When the Duke of Edinburgh dismissed them to their faces as “scum”, the royal correspondent of the Sun newspaper responded, “Yes, but we are the crème de la scum.”
The Queen and the Duke kept going. Three of their four children got divorced, with many of the most salacious details reported in the press. In November 1992, just after part of Windsor Castle had burned down, she gave a speech to mark the fortieth anniversary of her accession:
“1992 is not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.”
High position is no defence against “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. But the Queen came through, she smiled as she went about her duties, she spoke each year in her Christmas broadcast of her Christian faith, and in these days of her Platinum Jubilee we give thanks for her faithful service to her people.