I met Her Majesty the Queen once, at St. James’s Palace, at a diplomatic gathering I was attending in my part-time role of foreign minister’s wife. At the equivalent American event — at, say, the party the president throws every year at the U.N. General Assembly in New York — the foreign diplomats stand in line, shake the president’s hand, have their picture taken and are then rapidly ushered away. But when you meet the queen, you are at a fake cocktail party. You are standing in a small group — four or five of you, plus a “minder” from the British foreign office — and holding a drink while you wait for the queen to walk over.
She enters the room and moves from group to group. At each one, the British foreign office minder introduces her to the dignitaries present and she always — always! — thinks of something to say. “Yes, I so enjoyed my visit to Norway last year.” Or: “So looking forward to meeting your prime minister next month.” Some people curtsey. I didn’t, but not out of any particularly American revolutionary sentiment: in the excitement of being introduced to a small woman in unfashionable glasses and a dowdy pastel silk suit, I just forgot.
This weekend, the queen celebrates 60 years on the throne. In 1952, the year her father died, Winston Churchill was the prime minister of Britain. Since then, she has remained head of state while a dozen governments have come and gone. During that time Britain has been ruled by right-wing Conservatives and left-wing Labour leaders, by Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. For some of that time, the queen wasn’t particularly popular or especially beloved. At one particularly low moment, following the death of her daughter-in-law, Princess Diana, she and her extended family were very unpopular indeed.
All of that is in the past now, as the Diamond Jubilee celebrations kick off with a stunning, overwhelming and un-British lack of irony. I think it was Andrew Sullivan who once described Britain as a country in quotation marks, where everyone speaks as if they were laughing about something or at least distancing themselves from what they were about to say. None of that ironic distance could be heard this week in the voice of my friend the banker, who asked whether I would be watching the boat parade “in honor of our great queen.” Nor is it visible even in left-wing, sometimes anti-monarchical publications like the Guardian newspaper, which are filled this weekend with gushing articles about the “new Elizabethan age” and lots of details about the carriage the queen will be riding in the Jubilee procession on Tuesday.
The new enthusiasm for Her Majesty has something to do with her presentable grandsons and her new granddaughter-in-law, something to do with lower profiles — sometimes less media is more — and quite a lot to do with the passage of time. People now associate the queen and her family with certain moments of their own lives and their collective history. They remember where they were when they heard Prince Charles was born or the queen’s mother died. They remember what they were doing at the time of the Silver Jubilee. They feel nostalgic about the queen, because she’s associated with their childhood and their youth.
Most of all, the queen, simply by living so long, has come to epitomize an increasingly rare idea of duty that many in Britain, and elsewhere, admire. She doesn’t quit, she doesn’t complain, she doesn’t talk to the press or protest when people draw nasty caricatures or say unpleasant things about her family. For six decades, she has shown up at charitable events, raised money for good causes, represented Britain when she was told to, met regularly with the British, Canadian and Australian prime ministers, among others, attended all of the state ceremonies, always looked the way she was supposed to look and always thought of something to say.
She may or may not be an interesting person — there are different schools of thought on this point — but it doesn’t really matter. She isn’t supposed to be interesting, she is supposed to be steadfast, consistent, patriotic. And she is. At the end of the day, the queen is one of the few public figures who can always be relied upon to keep her emotions under control. She used to be mocked for her stiff upper lip, but no longer: In a world of kiss-and-tell books, vengeful memoirists and television confessions, her unrevealing face, reliable public smile and formal appearance make a welcome contrast. There are too many emotions on display in the public sphere at the moment, and it’s a relief that one celebrity, at least, can be relied upon never to show any at all.