9 Sep 2015

What has Elizabeth II's long reign been like? That is the question

1:03 pm on 9 September 2015

What is this record reign of which you speak?

On Wednesday 9 September 2015, Britain sees Queen Elizabeth II become its longest serving monarch, surpassing Queen Victoria, her great-great grandmother and colossus of the 19th century.

What is the record?

More than 63 years.

Can you be more precise?

Yes: 23,226 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes. It's not known exactly when Elizabeth's rule began, but she'll pass that mark at about 5.30pm over there, or 4.30am on Thursday in New Zealand.

That's an early start for committed royalists.

Best put up the bunting before turning in.

What was Britain like when Elizabeth took the throne?

In 1952, Britain remained firmly in post-war mode. Food rationing was still in place. In New Zealand, the population ticked over the two million mark. The first hydrogen bomb was tested by the US. And roll-on deodorant was introduced.

Elizabeth II's reign has spanned 12 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to David Cameron.

And how many corgis?

She has owned 30 corgis during her reign.

Has she seen the world?

Certainly. While Victoria, albeit with less advanced transport options, never made it outside Europe, Elizabeth has been something of a globetrotter, paying 24 visits to Canada, 16 to Australia and 10 to the plucky far-flung Commonwealth outpost of New Zealand. She even made a historic trip to Ireland, the first by a monarch since independence.

She's never been to Greece, though.

Why not?

Because Greece exiled her future husband, Prince Philip, and his family when he was an infant.

Philip! Elizabeth's rock.

Yes. And her roll: the Duke of Edinburgh, now 94 and in his 68th year as consort, has delivered the world's press with a steady supply of fruity phrase-making. He told British exchange students in China "if you stay here much longer you'll all be slitty-eyed", asked Australian Aborigines if they "still throw spears at each other", and announced, "U're so fine (u're so fine), u're filthy cute and baby u know it (u know it)".

Are you sure about that last quote?

Apologies, that's actually Prince.

Not all Elizabeth's children have enjoyed such a stable marriage.

Three of the four have seen their marriages collapse amid the public glare of a ravenous tabloid press. "Like all the best families, we have our share of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements," she once said.

And Diana.

Diana, indeed. The Queen faced rare criticism over her judgement when, following the Princess of Wales' death in 1997, she stayed in Balmoral rather than returning to Buckingham Palace. She is regarded as having redeemed it all with an address a few days later, as dramatised in by Helen Mirren in the film The Queen, which, depending on your point of view, was either profound or profoundly dull.

What kind of a queen is she?

That's a big question.

Take as long as you like.

Depends who you ask. Biographer Douglas Hurd calls her "Elizabeth the Steadfast". Historian David Starkey: "She has done and said nothing that anybody will remember. She will not give her name to her age. Or, I suspect, to anything else." Not that that's a bad thing, he adds.

Conservative writer Charles Moore lauds her "faith, patience, and a touch of cunning", and judges her far superior to Victoria, whom, were she around today, "would make the monarchy totter. Her depression, over-excitement, selfishness, partisanship, outspokenness, favouritism and laziness would become apparent, via the media, to the world."

Republican columnist Polly Toynbee calls her a "past mistress of nothingness". And, according to Emma Barnett of the Daily Telegraph, she's "basically become a feminist icon".

How much left in the tank?

Her mother made it to 101. If Lilibet - as she is known to her family - lives that long without abdicating, the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, will get the gig when he's 79.

Charles. About that.

Yes?

Hmm.

Hmm?

It's just - well - how to put it? Wills and Kate and their kids seem very popular!

Certainly, they've been credited with a resurgence in the popularity of the monarchy, both in the UK and in plucky far-flung Commonwealth outposts, such as New Zealand.

Might the throne then skip a generation?

There has been endless speculation that William might succeed. But who can say. Some reckon that the monarchy itself should be dumped when the incumbent departs.

Can the Queen sort out the New Zealand flag process?

Please try to stay on topic.

Seriously, though, if we ditch the current flag that would surely be a fillip for republicans.

Prime Minister John Key has stressed they're totally separate matters. He's "the biggest constitutional monarchist you'll meet".

Right, but nevertheless.

Just leave it.

Will there be a big party to mark the milestone?

A "royal source" told the Daily Telegraph that she "did not want any 'fuss' made about the landmark"; that she "just doesn't see this as one of the significant moments".

What will she get up to?

She's opening a railway line in Scotland.

Boo! We demand a speech!

You're not alone. She may yet deliver, with the latest reports suggesting she could say a few words after she alights from a steam train.

I say, would you mind terribly abbreviating this matter into one score and five words?

Happy and glorious, but in a quiet sort of way, one has restored a sense of stability to the monarchy. God save Charles, is all.

Five words?

Longest to reign over us.

Toby Toby stamp

*This column is part of a weekly series, which is published every Wednesday, by graphic artist Toby Morris and journalist Toby Manhire.