Newsmaker: Queen Elizabeth II

The British monarch reached her 90th birthday today. The longest-reigning queen ever has overseen major changes in her country, and dealt with much heartache.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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The voice is thin and high-pitched, but carries its message of hope and courage with unwavering authority.

It’s October 13, 1940, a year into the Second World War. Britain is against the ropes, driven out of France by the German onslaught, and evacuating tens of thousands of its children in the face of indiscriminate bombing by the Luftwaffe.

The 14-year-old Princess ­Elizabeth, the eldest daughter of the king, is making her first ever broadcast on the radio, to shore up the courage of “the children of the Empire, at home and abroad”.

“In the end,” she tells them, “all will be well, for God will care for us and give us victory and peace.”

Even at a distance of three-­quarters of a century, there’s no mistaking her conviction that this would come to pass.

A month earlier, Buckingham Palace had been bombed, but despite government pleas, ­Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret would not be evacuated to Canada.

“The children won’t go without me,” their mother famously said. “I won’t leave without the king. And the king will never leave.”

For Elizabeth, it was the beginning of a lifetime of public service, which continues this week as she celebrates her 90th birthday, after 64 years on the throne.

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary of the royal house of Windsor was born in London on April 21, 1926. Her mother, Elizabeth, at the time the Duchess of York, was the daughter of a Scottish aristocrat; her father, Albert Frederick Arthur George, was the second son of King George V.

The princess was third in line to the throne, but not expected to sit upon it. Ahead of her was her father, and ahead of him his elder brother, her uncle ­Edward.

Fate had other plans. After the death of George V in ­January 1936, Elizabeth’s uncle was crowned Edward VIII. But before the year’s end, he had abdicated for the love of an American divorcee deemed unsuitable for the role of queen.

Elizabeth’s father succeeded him, becoming George VI, and the 10-year-old princess was suddenly next in line to the throne.

Three years later, the crisis was all but forgotten as war erupted. “Lilibet”, as the family has always called her, joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service.

In May 1945, she and Margaret sneaked out of the palace on Victory in Europe Day to mingle with the crowds cheering the king and queen. She later recalled being “swept along on a tide of happiness and relief”.

In 1947, she travelled to South Africa with her parents for her first official tour. Turning 21 in Cape Town, she broadcast a commitment to the people of the Empire. “My whole life,” she declared, “shall be devoted to your service and the service of [the] great imperial family to which we all belong.”

In November that year, she married the Royal Navy officer Prince Philip of Greece and ­Denmark, who became the Duke of Edinburgh. A year later, Elizabeth gave birth to their first child, Charles. Anne was born in 1950, followed by Andrew in 1960 and Edward in 1964.

Elizabeth’s father, who had been ill for some time, died on February 6, 1952, five days after his 25-year-old daughter and her husband had left for a tour of Australia and New ­Zealand.

When news of the death reached the couple in Kenya, In the words of a solemn BBC broadcast, “she bore it like a queen”. They flew straight home, where two days later the princess was proclaimed Queen Elizabeth II.

For her coronation on June 2 the following year, she had her gown embroidered with the floral symbols of the ­Commonwealth nations, including wheat, cotton and jute for Pakistan and the lotus flower for India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

In one sense, Elizabeth has reigned over an era of decline, during which Britain lost its ­empire piece by piece. With ­India already gone, the next 40 years saw the dismemberment of the rest of the empire, concluding in 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong to China.

Yet out of the ashes rose the phoenix of the Commonwealth, an ­alliance of many of Britain’s former colonies and other nations of which the Queen is more than merely the symbolic head.

She has, as one commentator observed, been the glue that has held this disparate group of 53 nations and 2.2 billion citizens together – for 16 of them as head of state – and she has also been the national adhesive that has bound the British.

From Winston Churchill to David Cameron, throughout her long reign, she has held weekly private audiences with a dozen different prime ministers. For them, and the British people, she has been there through great social and political upheavals, as a steady reference point and the living embodiment of her father’s belief that “the highest of distinctions is service to others”.

Much has been made in the United Kingdom this week of the fact that the woman chosen to make the Queen's 90th birthday cake was a Muslim – the British-Bengali Nadiya Hussain, last year's winner of the popular BBC TV reality show The Great British Bake Off.

But although Britain, like many western nations, is struggling to balance the demands of security with respect for the rights of its multicultural population, this was no mere cynical ploy. As the head of a family historically responsible for the well-being of millions of Islamic subjects, multiculturalism was part of the Queen’s DNA long before mass immigration to ­Britain began in the 1950s.

“Accepting diversity goes far deeper than accepting differences at face value and being tolerant,” said the Queen in her Commonwealth Day speech last month. “True celebration of the dignity of each person, and the value of their uniqueness and contribution, involves … recognising and embracing their individual identity.”

The Queen has visited the UAE twice, most recently in 2010. Her first visit, in 1979, was part of a much-publicised tour of the Gulf that helped to open western eyes to the realities, versus the myths, of the modern ­Middle East.

Inevitably, her 90 years have not been without personal upset and tragedy. In 1979, her relative Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Prince Charles’s mentor and the last viceroy of India, was killed by an IRA bomb at the age of 79.

Her younger sister, Margaret, who died in 2002, was linked romantically but ultimately unhappily to a number of men, and became the first royal target of tabloid media attention. As the first British royal in modern times to be divorced, she set another unhappy precedent. The Queen has subsequently seen three of her four children divorced.

In 1992, the Queen briefly and uncharacteristically allowed the strain to show. Prince ­Andrew separated from his wife, ­Princess Anne announced her divorce, a tell-all book about ­Princess Diana’s unhappy marriage to Prince Charles was published, and to cap it all, Windsor Castle was badly damaged by fire.

That year, said the Queen, was her “annus horribilis”. Worse was to come.

Charles’s messy separation from Diana and their eventual divorce in 1996 saw the British press and public side with the media-savvy princess, an alliance that turned opinion against the entire royal family following her death in a car crash in Paris in August 1997.

The nation was engulfed in an unprecedented wave of sentimentality that no one, least of all the Queen, saw coming. She had, after all, as one biographer noted in 2015, been “born in a time when one ‘did one’s duty’ … and emotions were kept in check”.

Mistaking royal restraint and dignity for indifference, the mob turned from carpeting Kensington Royal Gardens knee-deep in flowers to baying for royal contrition. The family was actually focused on consoling Diana’s two sons, William, then 15, and Harry, then 12.

A series of crowd-pleasing departures from protocol followed, as the royals struggled to fall into step with public sentiment. The “collective moment of madness”, as one observer later described it, culminated on September 6, 1997, when ­Diana’s two boys were obliged to parade their grief for public approval, following on foot behind their mother’s coffin as it journeyed from Kensington Palace to ­Westminster Abbey.

At the time, the monarchy seemed to be facing its worst crisis since the abdication. Even the Queen’s personal ratings, usually in the 90s, dropped to under 70 per cent. But only briefly. Not for the first time, the Queen knew what to do, and in a frank address to the nation, brought the mass hysteria to an end.

“No one who knew Diana will ever forget her,” she said. “Millions of others who never met her, but felt they knew her, will remember her. I, for one, believe there are lessons to be drawn from her life and the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death.”

In September last year, she became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, and the longest-reigning queen the world has ever seen.

According to one royal insider this week, she’s unlikely ever to abdicate. But when the crown is eventually passed on – to Charles, perhaps, who is now 67, or to her grandson William – thanks to the woman who was never supposed to be queen, the British monarchy will be in the best shape it has ever been.

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