It has been 115 years since Britain saw a royal diamond jubilee. But Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne was celebrated in a Britain far different from the present one: change was in the air in 1897, but it was still too far away for a proud Britain to discern anything beyond the crowds of colonial politicians who had come to pay their respects. But it is again a woman whose long rule is being celebrated, one who has become, like Queen Victoria, a symbol of continuity and stability simply by the length of her time on the throne. There is some irony in this. The Britain of Queen Elizabeth II, that is, the rapidly changing — and definitely declining — Britain of the last 60 years, has not only been losing its power, prestige and economic muscle, but it has also been questioning, with increasing acerbity, the institution of monarchy itself. It is almost as if the queen, by representing an unchanging institution in a world of constant change, and by her personal qualities of restraint and sense of royal duty, has evoked and held the respect of the nation precisely because all else is becoming unfamiliar. She has, by virtue of her position, remained above the politics that is causing Britain discomfort, and beyond politicians who are causing the nation shame. From the remarkably few moments of unease during the queen’s reign, as, for example, the time of Diana’s death, the monarch has evolved into a figure whom quite lot of Britons would like to have around.
The irony runs deeper. The period during which the aura of Queen Elizabeth II, both symbolic and personal, has brightened is also the time during which Britain has moved from strength to comparative weakness. The last 60 years have overseen not only Britain’s loss of empire, but also its gradual loss of clout in Europe, its economic decline that has now taken the form of a recession from which it is unlikely to emerge soon, a social churning through which the Britisher is tending to lose his confidence, and a widespread — and often rather embarrassing — corruption in politics. Being the titular head, the queen, of course, cannot be held responsible for the change; she is not part of governance in that sense. But history tends to be cold; her reign will also go down as the time when Britain lost its plot.
Yet again, the secret of successful monarchy, it is said, is to go on doing the same thing differently. It is a sign of the times that this conservatism can seem to be a pillar of strength in a world where values have changed radically. As commercialization, heralded by loud publicity, takes over, and the McDonalds culture seizes the imagination of the young, the queen remains a dignified figure, signifying different times and lost values. However different from 1897 the role of Britain is now, the steadiness of its royal institution seems to have attracted the weight and even the muted glamour bestowed by time. It is old, quaint, and just the same. Perhaps a jubilee is needed to celebrate that.