There was an upheaval in Britain on Saturday, when Jeremy Corbyn, long a leftist outsider, moved to the inside. But something else happened in Britain last week, less surprising, in fact entirely predictable, but remarkable nonetheless. Queen Elizabeth II overtook her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, to become the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch ever.
It is not, though, the Queen’s longevity that makes her so impressive. It is that she has managed over so long a period of time, and in a context that has been in many ways hostile, to remain so admired a figure. With the Queen still in place, the royal family enjoys record popularity. In 2012 some 69% of respondents said that Britain would be worse off without a monarchy. But, the degree to which she is key to this high level of support becomes apparent as soon as the name of her son, Prince Charles, is mentioned. Only 39% of Brits say they want the crown to be passed on to him – this in a royal system in which the principle of heredity still prevails.
The strong support for the monarchy is, then, tied to the Queen herself. Which raises this question: to what should we attribute her staying power? She is not, in conventional parlance, either a leader or a manager. She is certainly not a power wielder, nor is she even an authority figure, given that the monarchy is so much less acceptable without her on the throne. She is not even a symbol any longer, for only the elderly remember the empire, or venerate the pomp that marks the royal household. The Queen is instead sui generis: a singular woman in a singular circumstance to whom none of the ordinary labels may be said to apply.
She looks perfectly the part, and she plays perfectly the part. Above all she speaks perfectly the part – that is, she famously says nothing. Not literally nothing, but substantively nothing. She has given over her long years on the throne some speeches, but they are strictly ceremonial, formal in nature. Never once has she given a press interview as we Americans would understand it. And never once has she tendered her personal opinion on anything that matters to anyone. She has been content to keep quiet, which in this case goes a long way toward explaining why her supporters are so many, and her detractors so few.