Queen Elizabeth II is the only head of state the vast majority of Canadians have ever known. Through all the political, social and technological upheavals of the past 60 years, she has been the one constant in our lives. Her image graces our stamps, coins and bills; she has been to visit us 23 times. And her impact has been felt in the very nature of our political system.
The Queen has performed her role as monarch of Great Britain, Canada and 14 other realms, as well as head of the Commonwealth, for so long that it is difficult to imagine anyone else ever sitting on her throne. And yet there is more to her remarkable success than mere longevity. She has reigned long, but she has also reigned very well.
As she begins her Diamond Jubilee celebrations with the anniversary of her accession to the throne on Feb. 6, 1952, it is worth reflecting on how and why the Queen has been so successful. Today, even avowed anti-monarchists in Canada and elsewhere grudgingly admit her years of service represent the pinnacle of achievement for any head of state—elected or hereditary—in any realm.
Firstly, Queen Elizabeth II has never been a lazy or neglectful sovereign. “In this special year . . . I dedicate myself anew to your service,” she says in her official Diamond Jubilee message from Buckingham Palace. It is a familiar refrain.
At 85, she continues to work tirelessly to stay in front of her people—she undertook 370 engagements last year. When aides or family members have attempted to limit her prodigious schedule, her well-known quip in reply is: “I must be seen to be believed.” She understands that what authority she commands lies in her visibility. An obvious love for mingling with the public is a great aid in this regard.
In carrying out her largely ceremonial duties, the Queen has always managed to set the appropriate tone of dignity, progress and, where necessary, reconciliation and reflection. For example, days after the Meech Lake accord collapsed in 1990, she addressed the nation from Parliament Hill on Canada Day: “I am not just a fair-weather friend, and I am glad to be here at this sensitive time. I hope my presence may call to mind those many years of shared experience, and raise new hopes for the future.” It was a note-perfect sentiment: above politics but grounded in reality.
Another example of her careful ear for the right phrase and tone can be found in her visit to the Republic of Ireland last year, the first by a British monarch in over a century. While she could certainly not have forgotten that her cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, was assassinated by the Irish Republican Army in 1979, she arrived with an important message on “the importance of forbearance and conciliation.” Her performance was greeted with great admiration by Irish politicians and public alike.
Historically, the defence of the realm has always been a sovereign’s pre-eminent task. While the practical aspects of this duty have long since been taken over by elected government, the Queen and her immediate family have never forgotten their obligations. Note that Prince William, less than a year after getting married, recently deployed to active duty in the Falkland Islands piloting a search and rescue helicopter. And his brother Prince Harry saw front-line service in Afghanistan—at least until it became a media event. The royal family’s participation in the life of their country is real and tangible.
Finally, despite her association with centuries of tradition, Elizabeth II has also presided over a remarkable modernization of the monarchy itself. As indomitable as she may appear, she will not live forever. (Although, in 2015, she will pass Queen Victoria as the longest-reigning British monarch in history.) And while some find fault with her putative heir Prince Charles, the future of the British (and Canadian) throne clearly lies with her grandson and his wife, Prince William and Catherine, duchess of Cambridge.
Canadians had a chance to see this refreshingly modern couple up close during their honeymoon tour this past summer. The same sense of respectful public service established by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip is instantly recognizable in this royal couple as well. At the same time, they bring a new and youthful sensibility to their roles. They have fun. Together, William and Kate seem set to ensure the continuance of the monarchy far into the future. And in the end, this may be the Queen’s most impressive accomplishment.
Canada has been blessed with 60 years of exceptional service from Elizabeth II. Long may she reign o’er us.