Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth

The successful reign of Queen Elizabeth

NEWS DIGEST – Perhaps it sounds faintly sarcastic: but in future it may be said that the greatest achievement of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II was to have reigned for more than 70 years. Research is needed to tell us whether any of Nigeria’s traditional rulers alive or dead have attained that record. In Europe, among rulers of the major states, it has been attained only by King Louis XIV of France (1643-1715).

To have reigned for so long means to have known or had dealings with a remarkable number of other holders of high political office: during the present reign there have been 14 different British Prime Ministers, 12 Nigerian Heads of State, and 13 U.S. Presidents.

With 10 instances of ‘great’ preceding ‘grandfather’, but with the simpler ‘ancestor’ replacing the resulting cumbersome expression, one ancestor of the Queen is King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 also became James I of England. He commissioned the ‘Authorized’ or ‘King James’ translation of the Bible, and some imprints of it include a preface addressed to James by the translators. They address him in fulsome language: ‘most dread Sovereign’, ‘your most sacred Majesty’, whose appearance was ‘as the Sun in his strength’.

Because of constitutional changes and the rise of democracy, the use of such language would be unthinkable today. Yet when Elizabeth was crowned Queen on June 2, 1953, the ceremony, which dated back 1,000 years, included anointing with holy oil; and although an increasing proportion of her British subjects today declare that they have no religion, it is quite likely that quite a few of those who still have, including some Christians, believe that her authority comes from God.

The political power of the British monarch has undoubtedly continued to decline during the present reign. The fact of its near-non-existence puzzles many people. Some years ago one of my oldest friends in Nigeria expressed surprise because the then Prime Minster, David Cameron, got a controversial bill passed by the Houses of Parliament and the Queen signed it into law. ‘Could she not stop it?’ my friend asked. After all, he added, she was a Christian and the head (‘Supreme Governor’) of the Church of England. But no, I said, she does not have that power. Or she has it ‘on paper’ only: when it comes to legislation, and much else besides, her role is purely formal.

Some critics in Britain want to do away with the monarchy altogether. Some would like to replace the monarch with a ceremonial President, as in Germany or the Irish Republic. But a hereditary monarchy has special value because of its symbolic power: as that apex of the political system which is isolated from the system, as that Family which is the idea of all the families that make up the social system Critics hasten to say that the present Family, which has undergone many vicissitudes, is far from an ideal Family; but that is to misunderstand the meaning of ‘idea’ and ‘ideal’.

Many critics of the monarchy are also falling silent as they contemplate the present Head of the Family. During the present Platinum Jubilee celebrations (which actually commemorate her accession to the throne on February 6, 1952) her personal qualities are being remarked upon more than ever before. They have also become more visible.

At the beginning of her reign the then ‘Establishment’ probably wanted the monarch to continue to be seen as a remote, aloof, mysterious figure, different from ordinary mortals. At the time of her Coronation, when television was just beginning to be a feature of ordinary people’s households in Britain, there was debate in high circles as to whether television cameras should be allowed into Westminster Abbey, where the ceremony took place.

Fear was expressed that this intrusion would dispel the ‘magic’ of monarchy. But the Queen herself ruled that the cameras should be allowed in. Since then, over the decades, she has allowed the institution she embodies to become more relaxed and approachable, while maintaining its dignity and a certain reserve. This is not an easy balance to achieve; but she has brought to the task qualities she has surely had all along, such as graciousness, serenity, humour, and a strong Christian faith, which she often refers to in her Christmas broadcasts.

Biographers increasingly refer to the Queen’s sense of humour, which can be dry and subtle as well as gentle and kindly. One of them, Andrew Marr, relates that when Tony Blair became her Prime Minister in 1997, one of his ministers, the fiery Left-wing Clare Short, had an audience with the Queen. Unfortunately, during their conversation Clare Short’s mobile phone kept ringing. Clare Short was probably too embarrassed to answer it; but finally the Queen said: ‘I should answer it, dear. It might be someone important.’ It is possible that the story is apocryphal – in a suspiciously large number of anecdotes told about her the Queen addresses someone as ‘dear’.

Biographers also say that the Queen likes people to make her laugh. I shall always feel disappointed with myself that, when she came to Nigeria for the second and probably the last time in 2003 and I was among those invited to a reception in Abuja to meet her, I did not say anything that made her laugh. In our conversation I remained serious-looking, as she did.

I do well remember that, when I got back to Kano after the event, the first thing that my then house-help Vincent said on opening the front door was ‘Did you meet Eliz’beth?’. That, uniquely, was an indication of the affection and respect in which she has for long been held around the world. After a reign of so far 70 years, and at the age of over 96, the prayer is that she will reach the age of 100. It is a tradition in Britain that someone who reaches that age receives a congratulatory message from the monarch. We assume that in 2026 Queen Elizabeth will not be sending such a message to herself.

Professor Jowitt, FNAL, is a lecturer in the Department of English, University of Jos.