Seventy years on

Queen Elizabeth II yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of her accession, far outstripping the record of any of her predecessors. The previous record-holder, Victoria, already in her day a byword for longevity, managed rather less than 64 years.

Monarchs have more opportunity for long tenure than other professions because there is no minimum age requirement; some inherit thrones as children (Mary Queen of Scots, for example, was only six days old). The longest reign generally acknowledged is that of Louis XIV of France, who became king at the age of four and ruled for more than 72 years; if she lives, Elizabeth will overtake his record in May of 2024.

But she took the throne as an adult: for the whole 70 years she has been queen in fact, not just in name. The job, of course, is not what it once was. A constitutional monarch leaves the actual tasks of government to others (not always with happy results), but the formal and ceremonial roles still involve a great deal of work, which the queen has performed conscientiously and well. To be still doing so at age 95 is a remarkable achievement.

As in most areas of life, it’s important not to generalise from the exceptional cases. One child practises hard at tennis (or whatever) and goes on to be a world champion; that’s wonderful and worth celebrating, but it doesn’t mean that if your child practises hard they will do the same. Most probably they won’t.

So with monarchy: the existence of an exceptionally successful monarch does not prove the worth of monarchy as an institution. It’s worth revisiting what I wrote ten years ago, when the queen celebrated her diamond jubilee. You can still find it on the Crikey website, but here’s my conclusion:

The plain fact is that Britain in recent times has been very lucky. Most monarchs have understood their place and done their job reasonably well.

In the two centuries since George III, none have seriously tried to extend the bounds of their constitutional power. The last monarch to have a different view of his duties to that of his government — Edward VIII — was content to abdicate rather than force the issue.

Even more importantly, monarchs over those two centuries have been of sound mind, and for even longer — in fact, ever since the accession of Mary I in 1553 — they have all been adults. But in the annals of monarchy that’s very unusual. Madness, child monarchs and disputed regencies are the rule as much as the exception.

Walter Bagehot famously remarked that “It has been said, not truly, but with a possible approximation to truth, ‘That in 1802 every hereditary monarch was insane’,” and went on to say that “The more we study the nature of cabinet government, the more we shall shrink from exposing at a vital instant its delicate machinery to a blow from a casual, incompetent, and perhaps semi-insane outsider.”

The most important thing to remember when framing systems of government is to expect the worst, not the best. If we assume that personnel will always be wise and virtuous, the task becomes much simpler. But when that assumption comes to grief, as sooner or later it inevitably will, we will wish that we had included more safeguards and trusted less to good fortune.

By all means celebrate the good fortune that has given us 60 years of a decent and competent monarch. But let’s not draw the wrong lesson about the usefulness of monarchy.


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