It rained on the grand flotilla on the Thames marking the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. How appropriate. It meant that at the center of all the pageantry of the 1,000-boat extravaganza, an 86-year-old woman stood in the elements and waved to her subjects for hours, without betraying a hint of discomfort or complaint.
Queen Elizabeth is a miracle of dutifulness. In an era of irresponsibility, she always does what is expected of her. In an age of self-expression, she has subsumed herself in her institution. In a time of informality and ill manners, she observes all the rules, with grace and dignity.
Who knew that the British monarchy would assert its continued relevance by remaining so admirably out of step? The queen personifies almost everything disdained in our hyperdemocratic times when the “new new thing” is always celebrated. She is tradition incarnate, and — despite, by all accounts, a dry wit — unfailingly abides by the unwritten command that she never do or say anything interesting.
No PR person, no politician would ever counsel acting like the queen. A stuffy devotion to propriety isn’t supposed to sell. Yet her approval ratings in Britain are nearly 80 percent. She is adored throughout the other 15 countries she formally rules. The Thames flotilla drew 1 million people, and her jubilee was the slightly jarring spectacle of a 21st-century celebration of a centuries-old institution.
In the 1990s, Prime Minister Tony Blair wanted to nudge aside the timeless Britain represented by the queen with his “Cool Britannia,” a new, hipper Britain held together less by the monarchy than by execrable shlock. Now, it is Blair’s formerly with-it projects that are fit for a time capsule. He claimed his Millennium Dome, a vast structure housing an exhibition to celebrate the advent of the third millennium, would be “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity.” The dome turned out to be one of the world’s great white elephants, an expensive waste that demonstrated the essential callowness of its creators.
What the monarchy has that can’t be simulated or invented on the fly is legitimacy. It is the accomplishment of Queen Elizabeth to have preserved and marshaled it. She knows that she is a national symbol, “a living flag,” to use Lenin’s phrase in explaining why the Romanovs had to be eliminated as a standing threat to the Bolsheviks. Even Britain’s silly royal rituals — the queen owns all the mute swans on the Thames, which are tallied up for her every year — have a whiff of majesty on account of their ancient pedigree.
If the makers of the European Union and its misbegotten experiment of a common currency had studied the British monarchy, they might have quit their foolhardy exercise in seat-of-the-pants nation-building long before they brought the Continent to the edge of the abyss. They might have understood the organic and distinctive nature of nations and the limits of deracinated bureaucratic rule, with no meaningful symbols, no long-standing traditions, no hard-earned legitimacy.
None of this is a brief against change. The British monarchy has lasted so long because it has been so supple and adaptive, in an expression of the pragmatic British temper. Robert Filmer, the 17th-century theorist of the divine right of kings, would look on the diminished role of the British monarchy with contempt. Queen Victoria, dubbed “the grandmother of Europe” because her relations were spread around so many royal houses, would view the shrunken influence of the crown with alarm. But Elizabeth is still queen, and in a few years could pass Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch in British history.
That is a testament to her work — some 2 million hands shaken and countless ceremonies endured — and her devotion to the role appointed her by history. In other words, she did her duty. “God save the queen,” the British sing. In Elizabeth, they have a queen worthy of the saving.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected] © 2012 King Features Syndicate