At 80, Elizabeth Is Britain's Unrivaled Queen of Hearts

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 22, 2006

WINDSOR, England, April 21 -- The huge wooden doors of Windsor Castle swung open Friday, and Queen Elizabeth II emerged to adoring applause. Thousands of people jammed the sidewalks as the monarch in the iridescent deep-pink dress and matching hat walked past on her 80th-birthday stroll. They called out to her, snapped photos for those who couldn't be there and hoisted signs reading, "We Love You Ma'am."

In a nation that delights in bashing its royal family, Elizabeth's enduring appeal is remarkable after 54 years on the throne. Britons poke merciless fun at the eccentric musings of Prince Charles and the late-night shenanigans of his sons, Princes William and Harry -- who were in the papers again Friday after yet another boozy, rowdy outing on the eve of Granny's 80th. Critics call the monarchy an embarrassment and a classist anachronism that has no place in a modern and multicultural democracy.

But almost nobody dumps on the queen.

"She's a mother figure," said Mike Smyth, 52, a fish importer originally from South Africa, as he lifted his 18-month-old grandson onto his shoulders for a rare live glimpse of the woman whose face is on every British coin and bank note. "People always like to have someone to look up to, don't they?"

For more than half a century, Elizabeth has been a steady and calm presence in a nation that prizes those qualities. Through wars, global battles against fascism and communism, through the divorces of three of her four children and endless royal gaffes and scandals, she has barely blinked -- publicly, at least. In her unwavering reserve, which some critics view as cold and aloof, many Britons have found a mirror of British society.

"She's a figurehead and a symbol of this country," said Mary Stud, 21, an architecture student from London. "She gives us a unique sense of national identity."

But beyond just existing, providing a royal head upon which to rest a jewel-encrusted crown, what has Elizabeth accomplished in her eight decades? What will be her legacy as queen?

"If you ask most people in Britain that, they are rather lost for something to say," said biographer Robert Lacey, author of "Royal: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II." "But then they will say, 'She's never put a foot wrong.' And there's a profound truth to that."

Presidents and prime ministers are judged by what they accomplish in office, Lacey said. But for monarchs the goal is to avoid controversy, provide continuity, cushion the effects of change and remain relevant in the eyes of the public.

In a taped address on Friday, Prince Charles, next in line to the throne, praised "my darling mama" above all for being "a figure of reassuring calm and dependability in a world of sometimes bewildering change and disorientation."

The queen's only regular substantive interaction with government is meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair every Tuesday evening, as she has done with nine other heads of government dating to Winston Churchill. But whatever thoughts or advice she provides in those meetings has never been revealed.

In fact, many say the reason she has remained so popular is because she has said virtually nothing of substance on political matters for half a century. "She has no political history," said Vernon Bogdanor, an Oxford University professor who specializes in British government issues. "No one has the slightest indication of what her views are."

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