Longevity, popularity and, above all, impartiality. Over more than 63 years, Elizabeth II has been an embodiment of a monarchy that always puts people first. Her frequent engagements with her subjects and unrelenting willingness to listen to them have distinguished her from some passive royals and other despotic ones across the world.
Throughout their reign, her predecessors made sure they were always hands-on when it came to decision-making and foreign policy. King John spent a fortune to go to wars while Elizabeth I was a monarch with broad political powers that she had an influence over politics in the whole continent.
The Magna Carta (1215), the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701) all sought to put an end to those extensive powers. After decades of violation of those charters, the Hanoverian accession saw those powers finally transferred to the Parliament.
In his The English Constitution (1867), Walter Bagehot outlined the prerogatives of the constitutional monarch.
‘’The sovereign has under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn.’’
With the arrival of the House of Windsor, Bagehot’s three-pronged prescription materialised. Tangible authorities began to dwindle, and the crown became more of an institute that symbolises grandeur and splendour in the country and across the Commonwealth. Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth assumed that role better than any other monarch.
Queen Elizabeth II’s stature as a constitutional monarch means that she has to remain politically neutral. She, however, maintains certain political duties, such as appointing a Prime Minister, who has the support of the House of Commons. She also opens the parliament and has the authority to dissolve it. Beyond that, a modern monarchy is largely a symbolic entity.
When it comes to the UK’s domestic or foreign policies, questions have always been raised on whether Elizabeth has honoured neutrality and stayed away from interfering in significant decisions.
‘’There have been a small number of occasions on which the Queen has made an intervention on controversial political issues but, on the whole, she has remained above party politics,’’ Richard Palmer, Royal Correspondent at the Daily Express stated.
‘’It’s a tricky balancing act for her, as she has to reflect the attitude of her elected government without appearing partisan. I think for the vast majority of her 63 years on the throne she has maintained that balance very well.’’
One example, in particular, sparked controversy ahead of a historic vote for Scottish independence. The Queen reportedly expressed hope that “people will think very carefully about the future”. The comment was viewed by many as a last-minute intervention. However, it accurately showed how the Queen of Scotland wanted people north of the border to make sure they cross the right box.
Unlike Queen Victoria- who was a self-confessed Conservative- the Queen never favoured a particular political party over another, supporting her people’s choice instead. As Head of State, she never votes in any local or general election, even though any law prohibits her from that.
It is also true that the Queen has formed stronger relationships with some of her 12 prime ministers than others. Her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was 52 years her senior and was often described as her mentor. Their 30-minute weekly meetings would extend to two hours, in which they a host of topics would be discussed, from state affairs to horse-racing.
Things were not quite as intimate with the only woman to hold the office. The Sovereign and Margaret Thatcher were said to have developed a frosty, businesslike relationship.
‘’She [the Queen] worried about Mrs Thatcher’s hostility to the Church of England,’’ wrote John Campbell in his The Iron Lady ‘’and about the effect of constant cost-cutting on other voluntary organisations of which she was patron.’’
Respect, however, was always a feature, and the Conservative leader’s services adequately rewarded with the most prestigious honour; the Order of the Garter. Upon her death in 2013, she received a ceremonial funeral that was attended by the Queen.
Among all, her first Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson was arguably the Queen’s favourite official at No 10, despite unfounded fears that he would follow a hostile, anti-monarchical approach upon his arrival. He was an intelligent raconteur who entertained with his funny stories.
Royal biographer and historian Robert Lacey seems to agree that the pair was in harmony, ‘’It is often said that Harold Wilson was Elizabeth II’s favourite prime minister. Certainly the Queen granted him the honour accorded only to Winston Churchill among her PMs, of going, against protocol, to dinner at Downing Street to wish him a personal farewell.’’
The big question remains whether the monarchy would have survived if the Queen showed any sign of political preference. Monarchs before her saw their fate sealed because of reckless policy decisions they made. Lessons from history have prompted some to link between Buckingham Palace’s neutrality and popularity.
‘’I don’t think her political reticence explains why she’s been monarch for so long,’’ Dr Hugh Pemberton from the Department of History, University of Bristol, suggests. “But I’m sure it does explain her enduring popularity,’’ Pemberton added.
Our monarch will continue to serve as a loving, loved and admired Sovereign. Her acerbic wit and patriotism will always stand her in good stead. And long may that continue.