When Elizabeth Windsor came to the throne in 1952, Harry Truman was President and Winston Churchill would be Prime Minister for another three years. She ruled Britain over seven decades of immense change. The country no longer rules a vast empire, it is much less religious, it is vastly richer, and it is now multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. And yet, amidst all this change, the monarchy remains, more or less, as popular as it ever was.
This is almost entirely down to Elizabeth II. She ‘stayed in her lane,’ as they say, remaining aloof from politics and performing the role of constitutional monarch about as well as you could hope for. Even Britain’s republicans — among whom I number myself, theoretically — can find nothing bad to say about her. To play a major role in public life for seven decades and generate something between indifference and affection is a remarkable achievement.
Although I am theoretically a republican — in the British sense — I have never acted on this theoretical concern because it has never been an actual problem. That may change with Elizabeth’s successor, Charles, who not only has views — of the drearily predictable kind — but wants to share them as well. If he wants to make policy he should run for office like everyone else, but there is no reason anyone should pay special attention to his views on the environment or economic policy simply because of who his parents were.
When Charles II was on his deathbed in 1685, he is said to have noted glumly that his successor, his brother James, would lose it all in two years. He wasn’t far off. James was turfed out by his daughter and son-in-law, William III and Mary II, in 1688. Britain’s respect for the monarchy is grounded in its non-political nature. Elizabeth II understood that. If the institution is to survive in an ever-changing world, Charles would do well to abide by that too.