CNN)This Wednesday, a woman makes history simply by living long enough. Queen Elizabeth II will become the longest serving British monarch on record.
Her achievement is a tribute to an institution that has defied every fad for democracy and egalitarianism. But the British monarchy could have faced a lot more trouble in the late 20th century if it hadn’t had Elizabeth on the throne.
By a mix of instinct and sophistication, this remarkable lady managed to make something medieval seem modern. Elizabeth II is a great example of «cometh the hour, cometh the women.»
The monarchy is a contrary creature. On the one hand, supporters justify it as a purely pragmatic constitutional arrangement, one that provides stability by elevating the head of state above politics. On the other hand, at the center of the monarchy is a personality — and it’s this personality, rather than its functions, that really defines people’s impression of the office.
Take the example of Queen Victoria, the previous record holder for longest serving monarch. Victoria was a willful, sometimes difficult lady. When her beloved husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, Victoria went into mourning, refused to appear in public for years and wore black until the end of her life. Yet she still intervened into daily life with gusto, writing letters to newspapers about matters that concerned her and publishing two collections of her diaries.
Queen Victoria lived in an age when the monarchy was straightjacketed by an emergent democracy. But the royal family did not go gently into that night. It worked hard to influence the decisions of prime ministers and began a publicity offensive to create a bond between the crown and the expanding electorate. Victoria’s son, King Edward VII, threw himself into pre-First World War diplomacy and used his rakish charm to smooth over the social tensions of the period.
But the uncertainty of the monarchy’s position was exposed in the 1930s, when King Edward VIII’s love life led to a constitutional crisis. Edward had earned himself few friends by carelessly interfering in politics, particularly when he made sympathetic noises toward Nazi Germany. His abdication to marry the woman of his dreams, the American divorcee Wallis Simpson, was both voluntary and forced by the establishment. It was a very British coup: polite and bloodless. But we cannot overestimate how much it influenced the way the royals approached their job.
So, when Elizabeth II became Queen in 1952, she inherited a monarchy in hesitant transition. A 25-year-old with no experience in politics was bound to operate at a distance from government out of instinct — but also to avoid the mistakes of Edward VIII. As Britain entered the 1960s, change was everywhere. Church attendance plummeted, respect for public figures fell, the empire shut up shop. If the monarch became too overtly political, too resistant to change, then she risked being dismissed as an obstacle to progress.
Elizabeth’s only hope was to recast the monarchy, to redefine it as something with a purpose that served a country crying out for some point of stability. It had to become, to use that awful phrase, «value for money.»
Under Elizabeth, the monarch sat at the center of a new commonwealth of independent nations — one often headed by socialists who learned to appreciate her quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Elizabeth also offered a degree of emotional support to British prime ministers. The Labour Party’s Harold Wilson described his weekly meetings with her to detail legislation as «going to see mother.» John Major, whose Conservative government in the 1990s was torn apart by backbench revolts and sex scandals, shared his problems with her and became a good friend.
Prime Minister Jim Callaghan described her style as «friendliness but not friendship,» which is appropriate, given that the monarch cannot become too attached to politicians who come and go. Yet we mustn’t confuse Elizabeth’s propriety with passivity. On the contrary, there is anecdotal evidence that the Queen has found ways of signaling disagreement when she might have deemed it absolutely necessary.
The journalist Simon Heffer claims that during one review of defense spending in the 1990s, a minister was invited to the palace for an audience with the Queen. «The Duke of Edinburgh [Prince Philip] was also present. Her Majesty allegedly said almost nothing; her consort gave the minister both barrels.» The encounter didn’t affect the government’s decision-making, but the presence of the Queen would have been a none-too-subtle indication that she agreed with her husband.
Beyond politics, Elizabeth has helped establish the monarchy’s role as an everyday part of British life — eternal opener of new hospitals, patient tourist attraction, the source of endless talk.
«I have to be seen to be believed,» she is reported to have once said. That willingness to be visible, to always be on display and always smiling, is not egotistical. Rather it says: «We are privileged and the price of privilege is that we have to do our duty — and be seen doing our duty.»
It’s a very democratic idea of monarchy. It’s many years removed from Queen Victoria hiding away after her husband’s death or Edward VIII running away with Mrs. Simpson. While the modern British monarchy retains its gold leaf pomp, it defers to the taxpayers. And by staying so constantly in the public eye, Elizabeth has become what monarchy needs to be to survive: indispensable. She’s part of British identity now, like tea and bad weather. It’s hard to imagine life without her.
Of course, it’s bad taste to even try when we’re busy celebrating her longevity. A handful of republicans will scoff that living a long life is nothing to celebrate, but they are wrong, as always.
A long life lived in service to others can be a testament to virtue. Much as John Paul II was an example to millions of Catholics in how he suffered through to the end with stoicism, so the Queen’s busyness reminds us of the best aspects of Britishness. Never fussing. Getting on with things that need to be done. Muddling along.