To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, people packed the riverbanks in London Sunday to watch a boat carrying her and her family along the Thames amid a flotilla of 1,000 other ships. In some ways, the fuss over a monarch with an odd family and largely ceremonial duties helps explain the English writer George Orwell’s famous complaint about his country’s “obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance.”
Yet in this long-serving queen, many Britons see an embodiment of their own eventful history. Elizabeth stood with her parents on the Buckingham Palace balcony after Germany surrendered in World War II, ending the greatest threat to Britain’s existence. By the time she took the throne, her country’s tenure as the world’s leading nation was over; today, London’s importance as a global financial and transportation hub has again put England at the center of the world. The lineup at the tribute concert Monday — could any of Elizabeth’s predecessors have even understood the concept of “Sir Elton John”? — speaks to how major trends burst onto the scene, entered the mainstream, and settled into pleasant old age during her reign.
Fifteen years ago, some Britons were so put off by their queen’s detached reaction to the death of Princess Diana that they were calling for the end of the monarchy. That talk has subsided. The monarchy doesn’t make much sense to American eyes — and maybe even some British ones — but it serves its purpose well.