The celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s sixty years on the throne coincides with the best of recent times for the British monarchy. The moment and the mood will pass, but the wider challenge to the institution’s paralysed opponents is enduring, says David Hayes.
"Luck is a synonym for ruthless adaptation.” When the Polish philosopher Stanislaw Brzozowski (1878–1911) wrote these words, Europe’s clutter of imperial houses commanded the fate of peoples not only across the continent but also in much of the world beyond. Most would fall in the cataclysms of war and revolution to come, though a handful of small-state northern variants (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium) survived by remaining on the right side of their compatriots through the century’s traumas.
Britain’s monarchy alone appears to have performed another trick in the face of recurrent social and political convulsion: finding in it material from which to carve new roles and rationales (including even a name), while continuing to live and breathe in the grand manner of old - and retaining along the way, even through its worst of times, broad public support.
So at least runs a plausible summation of the fair outlook Queen Elizabeth II might observe as she waves from the Buckingham Palace balcony to the crowds assembled in The Mall during the centrepiece weekend of her “diamond jubilee" in early June 2012. By strange alchemy or divine grace (and the Queen is a believer as well as “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”) - and backed in any case by more than a touch of steel - the celebrations of her sixty years on the throne find the House of Windsor in as favoured a condition as could reasonably be wished.
All is becalmed. The long crisis of the 1990s - whose low points featured an income-tax controversy, the Windsor Castle fire, media disasters, marital troubles, and above all Princess Diana - is a receding memory. A once-in-an-aeon constellation has appeared: promising marriages (notably that in 2011 of handsome Prince William, second in line to the throne, to the comely Catherine Middleton), youthful replenishment, quiet modernisation of the “royal household”, skilful PR, an indulgent media, unthreatening political circumstances (including inert republicanism), and welcome freedom from scandal. Each of these would be encouraging in isolation, but their coincidence - and blessed reinforcement in the warm public sentiments that cluster around a major anniversary - make 2012 close to the best of modern times for the institution.
Yet if this is indeed the view from the balcony, an astute monarch with a strong sense of family history will also be aware of how much “The Firm” has had to change to secure this position – and how rare and fragile such moments of grace can prove to be.