The Queen was born 90 years ago tomorrow at 17 Bruton Street, the London house of her mother’s parents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore.
The chances of the infant Princess Elizabeth ever becoming Queen seemed remote. It was expected her father’s older brother, the future Edward VIII, would get married and have children, and even if he didn’t, her own parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, might have a son who would take precedence over her.
Instead of which, her parents had another daughter, her uncle remained childless and abdicated in December 1936, her father became King George VI but died in January 1952 at the age of only 56, and tomorrow the Queen will celebrate her 90th birthday, having reigned for longer than any other English or British monarch: last September, she surpassed Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years and 216 days on the throne.
Such longevity can baffle understanding. In the supplements marking her birthday, there is a sense, amid the beautiful but seldom unfamiliar photographs, that even the most enthusiastic royal commentators feel slightly discouraged by the awareness that they have said everything they have to say many times before.
Amid a profusion of often unilluminating detail, it is possible for some essential points to get lost. A lady born a few years after the Queen reeled off a few of these:
She’s a very dutiful monarch: she learned that from her father, George VI. She’s put her country ahead of her family, sometimes. She’s buoyed up by such a long and happy marriage. She’s steady, she doesn’t gossip, she doesn’t have favourites. We’ve been very lucky to have her for so long.
Princess Elizabeth’s early life was that of an upper-class girl who learned good manners, Christian piety, how to dance and speak French, the enjoyment of games such as hide and seek, and the love of animals.
In his book about the Queen, Ben Pimlott describes home education for upper-class girls as the British equivalent of binding feet.
It is certainly true that in such homes, intellectual life was considered superfluous, if not harmful. The essential thing was to be initiated into a tradition of behaviour.
But although that tradition entailed the acceptance of constraints on freedom of action, what better preparation could there be for the role of constitutional monarch?
And as the Queen’s life shows, the tradition is more flexible and adaptable than its critics allow. In youth, it helped her to survive immoderate praise – President Truman described her, when she visited the White House in 1951, as “a fairy princess” – without becoming unhinged.
She also survived the decline and fall of the British Empire, and with it of the officer class, to which so many members of her family belonged. Her husband was obliged, at her accession, to give up the career in the Royal Navy to which he was devoted: a sacrifice for which he neither asked nor received much thanks.
At the start of her reign, the press was almost unbelievably deferential. Before long, it became almost unbelievably rude.
But even the most hardened satirist, more than ready to go for her children, tended to retire discomfited from the attempt to take a crack at the Queen. For to disrespect her was to declare oneself brazen, unkind, disreputable, a bit of a lout.
Already in Victorian times, Bagehot and other constitutional writers referred to this country as a “disguised republic”, whose monarchy pleased the crowds but was insignificant compared to the House of Commons and the Cabinet.
As Bagehot put it in the Economist:
The more democratic we get, the more we shall get to like state and show, which have ever pleased the vulgar.
This condescending attitude to our glittering but powerless monarchy, an institution especially popular with uneducated people, continues among modern intellectuals. They ignore the Queen’s role as the guarantor of the constitution.
The monarchy is one of the greatest, though least observed, checks on arbitrary power. It occupies the space a dictator would need to occupy.
Because it is unthinkable in Britain to push the monarch aside, tyranny itself becomes unthinkable. In countries where for understandable reasons the monarchy was overthrown – France in 1789, Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918 – tyranny was not unthinkable.
In the United States, George III was overthrown, but the resulting void, unsatisfactory to people steeped in English habits of constitutional thought, was filled by an elected head of state.
The US is a disguised monarchy. The president promises to defend the people against the scoundrels in Washington, and having failed to do so, is replaced by someone else who promises to do the same thing.
At Westminster, the execution in 1649 of Charles I left a void. Oliver Cromwell declined two invitations to have himself crowned as king, and soon after his death, the gap was filled by the restoration of Charles I’s son to the throne.
In 1688, the flight of James II left no void, because William of Orange was on hand to replace him. He became, as William III, perhaps the most underestimated of all our monarchs. No one could have been more skilful at deposing James, negotiating the terms for a monarchy acceptable to Parliament, and making the new settlement work.
I have strayed beyond the present Queen because I recently wrote a short account of all 40 monarchs since 1066, which cured me of the misconception that they were able to please themselves.
They needed, on the contrary, to please their people, and got into desperate trouble when they failed to do so.
In modern times, our monarchs have served the public by going above politics, and becoming instead a kind of hereditary umpire.
The Queen plays this role with exceptional and unwearying conscientiousness. She does not have to declare any Prime Minister out: the public elect MPs who do that for her.
But she stops the politicians, few if any of whom remain popular for long, from getting above themselves, and obliges even a convinced republican such as Jeremy Corbyn to play by the rules.
Royal ceremonial, vastly improved since the late 19th century under pressure from mass-circulation newspapers and then from television, conceals this function of umpire from many observers.
But as we congratulate the Queen on her birthday, we should recognise that she is not just a ceremonial figure: she upholds our constitution.
Andrew Gimson is the author of Gimson’s Kings and Queens: Brief Lives of the Monarchs since 1066 (Square Peg, £10.99).