Queen Elizabeth: a force for stability amid wrenching change

Andrew Hammond says while Queen Elizabeth marks the high point of becoming UK's longest-serving monarch, what comes after is less certain

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 1:50pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 1:50pm

On Wednesday, Queen Elizabeth II becomes the longest-serving monarch in UK history. Sixty-three years ago, when she assumed the throne, Winston Churchill was prime minister, Joseph Stalin was leader of the Soviet Union, Harry Truman was US president, and Mao Zedong was the Chinese Communist leader.

The queen, who at 89 is already the UK's longest living monarch, represents a figure of significant continuity for many people during a period when the world has been transformed.

While the queen is widely perceived as a force for stability, the role of the British monarch has changed significantly over the years. Among the key recent reforms she has helped oversee are giving girls born to the royal family equal succession rights with boys, and ending the prohibition on her successors marrying a Catholic. Another change concerns the monarch's finances, which are now more transparent, with the queen paying income and capital gains tax, and her official residences opened to the public to help pay for their upkeep.

Fewer than a quarter of the British population wants a republic, and many believe it is better to have a non-divisive, non-political head of state

The queen has had bouts of significantly lower popularity, notably in 1992, which became her self-described "annus horribilis" when the marriages of three of her children disintegrated, and Windsor Castle was nearly destroyed by fire.

Nonetheless, the queen and her immediate family have largely recovered and younger members, including Prince William, have helped power the ruling clan's popularity ratings to record highs. Fewer than a quarter of the British population wants a republic, and many believe it is better to have a non-divisive, non-political head of state. This factor may become even more important in the future, given that the UK appears to be increasingly divided on geographic lines, especially with increased pressure for independence in Scotland.

The queen, who has visited some 132 countries during her long reign, is widely admired. In an international poll this year by YouGov, for instance, she ranked among the top five most admired women in the world.

A key question now is how the monarchy will fare in the post-Elizabeth II period.

Charles at 66 is already the longest-waiting and oldest heir to the throne in British history. Moreover, he is neither as popular as his mother, nor as his son William. Indeed, polls show that a significant body of the UK public would prefer the monarchy to skip a generation upon the queen's death. This leaves open the significant possibility that the royal family could become less popular under Charles's rule.

Andrew Hammond is a former UK government special adviser