LONDON (Reuters) - When Britons sing “God Save the Queen” over four days of celebrations to mark Elizabeth II’s 60 years on the throne, monarchists may have cause to roar the line “long to reign over us” more heartily than ever.
Polls show the much-loved 86-year-old sovereign remains enormously popular and cherished by Britons, but questions linger about the future of the monarchy when she is gone and her already 63-year-old son Charles becomes king.
Republicans, royal watchers and even those with strong sympathies for the monarchy say that the future may pose a king-sized problem for an institution which relies on personal public appeal to stay relevant in the modern world.
“Monarchy is only as good as the people doing the job,” said royal biographer Robert Lacey.
“The British have cut off the head of their king, the British have lived as a republic for 11 years under Oliver Cromwell. We could do it again.”
Elizabeth became queen aged 25 on February 6, 1952 on the death of her father George VI, while on tour in Kenya with her husband Prince Philip. Winston Churchill was her first prime minister.
She inherited the throne from an enormously popular king, whose reputation for steadfast duty helped the royal family overcome the scandal of Edward VIII’s abdication for the love of a divorced American and endeared itself to almost every strata of society during the course of World War Two.
During her 60 years on the throne, Britain has undergone dramatic change, from the austere postwar 1950s through the swinging 60s, the greed is good 80s and former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s three-term New Labor era.
Over time, Britain has evolved into a more egalitarian society, where the ruling class has had to make way for a burgeoning middle class, where places at Oxford and Cambridge are no longer reserved for aristocrats and the majority of hereditary peers have lost their seats in the House of Lords.
Despite her auspicious beginnings, Elizabeth’s reign has not been all smooth sailing.
She has spent a large majority of her time saying farewell to the British Empire amassed by her forebears from Kenya to Hong Kong, although she remains head of state for 16 countries and head of the Commonwealth. Her own marriage to a Greek prince stayed rock solid, but her sister, daughter and two of her sons have very publicly not been quite so lucky in love.
The 40th anniversary of her accession was a year she famously described as an “annus horribilis” after three of her four children’s marriages failed and there was a fire at her Windsor Castle royal residence.
The death of Princess Diana, the divorced wife of Elizabeth’s son and heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, in 1997 did even more damage to the family’s public prestige.
But while her children and other royals have at times blundered in and out of headlines with their marital woes, leading the family to be described as the “most dysfunctional in Britain”, Elizabeth has remained dignified and dependable.
Shifting attitudes in society and occasional embarrassments have not really provided any serious challenges to a royal line that traces its origins back to William the Conqueror in 1066. Even hardened republicans believe reverence towards the queen means there is little chance to change the status quo soon.
Backed by a far more professional and sophisticated media operation, the royal family’s reputation has not only been restored from dark days of the 1990s but lifted to new heights.
The triumph of last year’s wedding of Charles’s eldest son Prince William to Kate Middleton, which saw more than a million people throng London’s streets and pulled in an estimated two billion viewers around the world, was testament to that.
A poll published by the left-leaning Guardian newspaper last week showed support for the monarchy was at its highest level since the survey was first initiated in 1997.
Almost 70 percent of Britons said the country would be worse off without the monarchy, compared to 22 percent who felt it would be better off. Only 10 percent backed an elected head of state.
“All the anecdotal evidence based upon the crowds that come out to see us and the enthusiasm that we feel is generated by the public ... to us feels like the institution is popular, relevant and successful,” a senior royal aide told Reuters.
Ironically the queen only became sovereign because of a quirk of history after her uncle Edward VIII abdicated the throne because of his love for American divorcee Wallace Simpson and the crown passed to her father.
Royal watchers say part of the queen’s appeal is her modesty, derived from the fact she never expected to be monarch, which makes her appear less detached and more down-to-earth.
During World War Two she learned to be a driver and a mechanic, and her love of the outdoors and her dogs, especially Corgis, is well documented. Commentators say she comes across as a woman more at home in tweeds than tiaras.
During much of her reign she was often upstaged for attention by three flamboyant women - her mother, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, her younger sister Margaret and Princess Diana, ex-wife of her eldest son and heir Prince Charles.
Ironically, the personal sorrow of losing her mother, and sister who died within weeks of each other in her Golden Jubilee year of 2002 and the trauma caused by Diana’s death in 1997, have given her a boost in the last decade, said Lacey, author of a new book “A Brief Life of the Queen”.
“Those three competitive female icons have vanished and that leaves the queen very clearly established as the principle mother figure of the monarchy and of the nation,” he said.
However, ask the public, and no obvious explanation emerges why the queen and the monarchy remain so popular.
“Despite what people might think about the concept of royalty, she is still the monarch of the country, which is something that I support,” said Julie Baker, 46, a project manager in east London.
“I support the monarchy because I think they do a lot for the economy and play an important role in history,” said Faye Hyland, 28, a trainee solicitor.
“The monarchy doesn’t really mean that much to me but I think it brings something to society,” said security worker Brian Reid, while Ed Jones, a sales representative, commented: “The monarchy is a good thing to have, it gives the country a sense of identity.”
Robert Hardman, another biographer of the queen, offers a simple explanation. She simply personifies Britain itself.
“She is the living incarnation of a set of values and a period of history,” he explains.
“In Britain, she is Tower Bridge and a red-double decker bus on two legs, not to mention Big Ben, afternoon tea, village fetes and sheep-flecked hills in the pouring rain.”
But what about the future? Her family and Britain’s political elite say the queen’s nimble ability to adapt without divesting any of the dignity of her role has been key to her success.
“She’s managed to get the family to move with the times, and I think that’s incredibly important,” grandson Prince Harry told U.S. television’s ABC News in an interview aired on Tuesday.
“You can’t get stuck in an old-age situation when everything else around you is changing. So you have to go with it.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed that view.
“It has been said that ‘the art of progress is to preserve order amid change and change amid order’, and in this the queen is unparalleled,” he said in a speech to Parliament earlier this year. “She has never shut the door on the future; instead, she has led the way through it.”
But therein lies the problem for the monarchy, commentators point out, because much might depend on affection for the incumbent rather than the institution itself.
The same Guardian poll that was such good news for Buckingham Palace, also showed only 39 percent wanted the crown to pass to Charles while 48 percent wanted it to go to his son Prince William.
Constitutional experts say there is no chance of the crown skipping a generation, saying the monarchy is not some sort of “The X Factor” reality TV show.
Opposition to Charles could particularly inflame republican sentiments in the other countries where the British monarch remains head of state.
“I think in international terms the monarchy will survive in Australia and New Zealand for the reign of the present queen. I don’t think it’s at all certain it will survive after that,” said Lacey.
Republicans are convinced that most Britons, especially the young are apathetic when it comes to the monarchy, and that will develop into opposition when they realize what lies in store.
That is why royal officials have desperately been boosting coverage of Charles’s sons William and Harry, they argue.
“All the evidence they’re getting about Charles is he’ll be unpopular or at least controversial,” said Professor Stephen Haseler, a leading republican and expert on the British constitution.
“If anything happens to the queen, he then becomes king overnight and the British people will then say to themselves did I have a say in any of this? Why do I have a head of state who I never had any say in appointing?
“It’s a very odd institution for a modern democratic country to have.”
Public relations gurus admire the work that royal officials have done to reinvigorate the monarchy’s image and consider that succession may be a long way off for a woman whose mother lived until 101. But they say the transition to Charles may not fare so well.
“I don’t believe Charles is very media savvy and that’ll come out as arrogance possibly and that might undo quite a lot of work,” Mark Borkowksi, one of Britain’s leading PR experts.
“They know just how far they can fall.”
Lacey suggests the fact that the monarch has little more than a role as a ceremonial head of state who cannot express opinions publicly means the fascination with Britain becoming a republic is simply missing the point.
“At the end of the day, she’s a tenant of ours in Buckingham Palace. We can kick her out of Buckingham Palace any day we want,” he said.
“We are essentially, when you look at the structure and the way the country runs, a republic with this glorious bauble that we all enjoy on top. And we can always unscrew the bauble any time we want.”
Additional reporting by Philip Baillie, editing by Paul Casciato