A Queen’s Momentous Reign

Letter from London

By John Martin

At nearly 4 years old in February 1954, from my six-foot father’s ample shoulders I waved a pennant-sized Australian flag as a royal motorcade drove slowly by. A smiling, pretty young Queen Elizabeth II and the handsome Duke Edinburgh waved amid the cheers of a huge Sydney crowd.

An estimated three-quarters of Australians set eyes on the royal couple during this tour. The Queen traveled 10,000 miles by air, making approximately 33 flights, 2,000 miles by road (130 hours in cars in 207 trips), visiting all five capitals and 70 country towns.

On September 9, Queen Elizabeth II will eclipse her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria as the U.K.’s longest-reigning monarch. “Let us hope that we are beginning a new Elizabethan age no less renowned than the first,” said Clement Attlee, a former Prime Minister. That may have been an overstatement, but the 63-year reign of Elizabeth II has probably been the greatest period of change in Britain’s history.

Her Majesty has given regular audiences to 12 Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher the longest-serving among them. As supreme governor of the Church of England she has worked with seven Archbishops of Canterbury: Geoffrey Fisher, Michael Ramsey, Donald Coggan, Robert Runcie, George Carey, Rowan Williams, and Justin Welby. She has seen seven Popes.

She came to the throne and lit up a grey period of post-war rationing and austerity. Empire was on the wane. Britons might lustily sing “Land of Hope and Glory” at the BBC Proms but in 63 years a once-bombastic country would become much less sure of its place in the world as its power and influence shrank. The watershed year was 1956 and the Suez Crisis. Prime Minister Anthony Eden was forced into a humiliating climbdown, and it became clear Britain was no longer a global power.

Between 1945 and 1965 the number of colonial people ruled by the British monarch plunged from 700 million to 5 million. Empire was already morphing into a much more benign Commonwealth, notably with Indian independence in 1947. The process proceeded in earnest with the independence of Ghana a decade later. Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Uganda, and many more nations followed in quick succession.

The movement to autonomous dioceses and provinces in the Anglican Communion began somewhat ahead of these political movements. Until the mid-1950s U.K. missionary bishops destined for territories within the Empire would be bid farewell from Lambeth Palace, their salaries met by U.K. mission boards, diocesan associations, or the Overseas Bishoprics fund.

Church leaders seemed more aware of the winds of change than many of the politicians. Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher acted to find indigenous leaders. Working with Canon Max Warren of the Church Missionary Society, Fisher cast an eye over early national church constitutions and traveled to East African to consecrate two Africans, Festo Olang and Obadiah Kariuki, at Namirembe Cathedral in Kampala, Uganda, on March 15, 1955. The new Anglicanism was setting a course in which autonomous provinces would become self-led, self funding, self-propagating, and now even self-theologizing.

Anglicanism already had Lambeth Conferences. Asians and Africans outnumbered white bishops by 1978. Two other instruments of communion, the Anglican Consultative Council and Primates Meetings, emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. The debate now is whether these instruments are any longer fit for purpose or simply represent a transitional phase as global Anglicanism moves in new directions.

The idea of televising Queen Elizabeth’s coronation on June 2, 1952, was deemed unthinkable by the Palace and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He was reputed to have said, “I don’t want it watched in pubs by men with hats on.” But they were forced to give way to public opinion and TV ownership doubled to over 27 million. The best index of social change is how much media have changed.

The Queen has a huge regard for the Commonwealth. Whether her successors will continue her pattern is open to question. Affection for Elizabeth II has kept Commonwealth instruments active. But many member countries sense that when she has gone there will be a spate of republican change. The New Zealand prime minister said during the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2014 that it was “probably inevitable.” Closer to home, Scotland may leave the union during her reign.

Britain has become one of the richest countries in the world. Ironically, however, a quarter of its children exist within widely held definitions of poverty. The gap between rich and poor is widening. A huge debate has raged for nearly two decades: is Britain an island of or an island off Europe? If Britain leaves the European Union, its global influence will be hard to predict.

The hallmark of her reign has been expertise on the nation’s unwritten constitution and an ability to advise her ministers without stepping into political minefields. The nearest she came to expressing a political view recently was when a member of the public asked what she thought about Scotland’s pending vote on independence. She said she was sure the Scottish people would think very hard before making their decision.

Even so, she has not always got things right. When Diana Princess of Wales died in Paris 18 years ago the Queen failed to understand how the British public wanted to see and hear from her. She insisted on continuing her vacation in Scotland, flying to London the day before the funeral.

If Elizabeth II lives to the same age as her mother and remains in office until then, Prince Charles of Wales will be 79. Charles has already been shown to be a meddler in politics, recently lobbying for grants for his charities and trying to get the Health Service to fund alternative remedies. Clearly the future of the monarchy will be in the hands of the next generation of younger royals. It has changed markedly since 1952. It will change even more in the future.

The Queen has not wanted public celebrations for this milestone. She apparently does not want to be seen to celebrate her great-great-grandmother’s death. How is it that the Queen has managed to serve in a role that survives largely because of its sheer blandness? Royal-watchers suggest she is not given to placidity, but she does it because she has always acted in character. It is part of her character to put the role before personal wishes. As Princess Margaret once said of her sister, “Lilibet has always known the right thing to do.”

Image: Queen Elizabeth II during a visit to the United States in 2007, via Wikimedia Commons

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