When historians reflect on the first 25 years, of the regin of Elizabeth II, they are likely to be surprised at the dismal contemporary notices. It was certainly not a golden age, the historians might agree, but at least it ws solid bronze.
To be sure, the dissolution of Britain's colonial empire was completed in her first quarter century. On February 6, 1952, she became queen over 40 nations; a quarter century later, she was down to 12 and made an effective difference in only one. That one, moreover, was fraying at the seams as a universal irritation with remote, bureaucratic government threatened to split Scotland and Wales from the United Kingdoms.
An all-white United Kingdom, moreover was turning into a multiracial state. Caribbean and Asian immigrants, officially estimated at 1.8 million, had poured in to take up the unskilled jobs white Britons would not touch in the 1950s, and 1960s. They were the source of a new tension in the 70s.
Finally, Britons were suffering some pinch in income during the last three years of the Queen's quarter century. The world recession of 1974 coupled with some home-grown financial excesses had ended, at least temporarily, the steady rise in living standards enjoyed during the 22 earlier years.
Taken as a whole, it was a remarkably sunny quarter century. The nation was at peace after the devastation of World War II. A brief, 1956 disastrous adventure in Egypt served as a reminder that Britain was no longer a great power. But the loss of that status saved the queen's subjects from the blodletting of their American cousins.
There was an endless tribal war between gangs of Protestants and Catholics in the kingdom's northwestern reaches. But apart from Belfast, Londonderry and the more or less transquil.
All through the period, up until those last three years, the country prospered and employment was full or over-full. Contemporary commentators, nevertheless, pointed to the faster economic growth almost everywhere else in the west.
By the end of the quarter century, the citizenry was two-thirds better off than its parents, enjoying an income per person of $3,750 in dollars of 1974 purchasing power against $2,050 when Elizabeth ascended the throne.
The arts, especially the performing arts, flourished as they generally do in peaceful, prosperous eras. London was the world's undisputed musical capital with more first-class concerts each night than Vienna often boasts in a week. Benjamin Britten and Vaughn Williams were worthy successors to John Dowland and William Byrd of the first Elizabeth's reign.
The London stage was still the envy of the world. The great centers for literature and the plastic arts had moved across the Atlantic. But there was certainly continued vitality in Britain.
Britain, no doubt, had become less influential than West Gemany, Japan or France, to say nothing of superpowers both present and emerging. But among the larger European countries, democracy, justice and the rule of law appeared more stable, less susceptible to radical political change.
Over all this, the queen reigned, but what did she contribute to the solid bronze?
In the arts, her tastes ran to Agatha Christie and Nancy Mitford, to Handel's "Water Music" and Louis Armstrong. There had not been a genuine patron of the arts in her family of German princelings since George IV.
Her contribution to the economy was even more problematic. From time to time, her cousin and husband, Prince Philip, growled that welfare, unions and taxes were the bane of Britain's entrepreneurs. But these were the conventional views of the rich horsey set with whom the couple enjoy country weekends and had no noticeable effect on policy.
Even so, virtually all serious commentators agree that the queen brought a dimension to the nation's generally stable politics that is as hard to describe or explain as the loyalty she inspired in most of her 55 million subjects.
Walter Bagehot, the irreplaceable Victorian commentator, said that a constitutional monarch enjoys the right to be consulted by her ministers, to warn and encourage them. There is no evidence to suggest that the seven first ministers who came and still come to the queen every Tuesday evening at six thirty were ever influenced by the 30 or so minutes they spent in her agreeable company, although Harold Wilson has said that talking with her sometimes gave him ideas.
It is rather as an example of solid bourgeois virtue that she has contributed to a sense of stability in a time of rapid change. Her steadiness, her devotion to regal duties that would have long ago crippled with fallen arches lesser mortals, her posture as model mother and wife - all compel the most critical to say she has worth. She is evidently a loving parent and mate. In a permissive age, these qualities are not lightly regarded by her commonplace subjects.
These qualities, moreover, are not embedded in the royal blood. Victoria's descendants divide neatly into the descent and the dutiful.
Edward VII, great-grandfather to Elizabeth, was one of the notable gluttons and philanderers of his day. His bedroom and bordello romps gave a name to the Edwardian age, his mother's counter-era. His son, the Queen's admired grandfather, was George V, a simple, upright man.
Elizabeth's favorite uncle, briefly Edward VIII, had a notorious taste for married ladies even before he swept off Wallis Simpson, admired fascism and dealt with Hitler's agents during the war. His brother, and father to Elizabeth, George VI, conquered a stammer by force of will, and kept his family under German bombs throughout the war, when he could easily have sent them to safety.
Elizabeth is clearly in the dutifold mold. But some of her most difficult decisions involved her younger sister, Princess Margaret, whose Caribbean idylls with a dropout 19 years younger frequently titillate the tabbid press.
If steadiness is one of the queen's great virtues, like all succesful conservative istitutions she knows how to survive by bending to changing tastes.
Five years into the reign, she came under sharp criticism for the exclusivity and narrowness of her palace entourage. She was seen as the apex of a snob's pyramid.
The queen, of course, said nothing. But soon thereafter she abolished the traditional presentation, the coming out or initlation rite for the daughters of the rich and wellborn.
Moreover, according to Robert Lacey, her unofficial biographer, later that same year she applauded when her prime minster, Harold Mac Millian, created the first life peers. This innovation brought commoners and fresh air to the largely powerless but somehow influential House of Lords.
The queen has shown the same flexibility in family decisions. In 1955, Princess Margaret wanted to marry Group Capt. Peter Townsend, a war hero but a divorced man. The queen, mindful of what she thought were her obligations as head of the Anglican Church, insisted that her sister could marry only by giving up her right to succeed to the throne. Margaret eivdently preferred royal status to love, and Townsend was sent packing.
But 21 years later, Margaret and her commoner husband Anthony armstrong-Jones, a sensitive photographer, concluded they could no longer live together. The queen readly consented to a divorce, leaving the couple free to pursue their new friends without hindrance.
Moreover, the queen continues to be friendly with Armstrong-Jones, or Lord Snowdon as he became after his royal marriage. This, too; reflects the changing values. In the past, no divorced person was even admitted to the royal enclosure at the Ascot races.
Is the queen then just a ceremonial figure, a public relations gimmack to promote goodwill for Britain abroad, an excuse for pageantry and a center for archair rites? Is she powerless in the governance of anything outside her family?
Lord Home, who was briefly her prime minister as Sir Alec Douglas Home, insisted the other night on the reality of the royal prerogatives. She can pick her consent to an election, Home said in a television interview.
The monarchy "must be underpinred by a constiutional function," he said, or the queen is nothing but "a sort of film star."
There is some color of substance to this. Britain has no written consitution, and convention dictates that the monarch must select as prime minister the leader of the majority party in the Commons. But what if there is no leader or no majority?
Following the Suez disaster, Anthony Eden resigned as prime minister in 1957. The Conservatives then had no mechanism to elect a leader. He was supposed to "emerge." Lords Salisbury and Churchill, the party's elders, advised the queen that Harold MacMillan was the man, and she called him to the palace - to the dismay of many backbenchers who wanted Rab Butler.
Six years later, an ill MacMillan resigned, and advised Elizabeth to summon Sir Alec. This time, the party's MPs were divided between Butler and Reginald Maudling. There were restrained cries of "never again" when Home was picked. Thereafter, the Tories reformed and now, like Labor, the party's MPs elect the leader.
It is literally true that in 1957 and 1963, the queen picked her prime minister. But it is substantively inaccurate to say she exercised her choice. She did what she was told.
The second 25 years, however could see a revival of the royal prerogative. The two major parties are losing ground to splinter groups, reflecting regional demands for freedom. There is a growing cry in the press, always intensified when Labor is in power, for proportional representation. Either or both will make it harder to elect a party with an overall majority.
It is conceivable that the queen, as a recognized, experienced neutral, will have to break a deadlock after some future election, inviting a potential prime minister to form a government. In the end, of course, Parliament will decide, approving or disapproving by majority vote. But the queen may initiate the process.
Whatever the limits of the royal prerrogative today, the queen is not uninvolved with the government that is carried on in her name. She spends several hours each day "doing her boxes," reading, initialing and signing a mass of papers and reports sent her by her minister. This process reaches a climax in her weekly chats with her prime minister.
Wilson has testified that the queen is "very experienced . . . very professional. She does her homework."
But do these talks make any difference?
John Grigg, who as Lord Altrincham kicked up a row with his criticism of Elizabeth 20 years ago, regards the process as a useful interlude in the harassed lives of prime ministers.
What is actually happening," he said," is a form of thereapy for a very hardworked middle-aged or elderly man. Once a week he is able to go to Buckingham Palace and talk to an attractive woman in strict privacy in pleasant surroundings. It's almost like being on the psychiatirst's couch. He can pour himself out and that's very good for him. (But) the pressures on a prime minister from other quarters are much too strong to permit him to be influenced by the queen."
At the very least, the monarchy is a colorful, romantic affair, and the queen, in the words of David Watt of the Financial Times, "has brought the balm of a glamorous tradition to the wounds of lost power." At the worst, it promotes snobbery and class consciousness, and the queen, with her tax exemption on an enormous, undisclosed private fortune, is a reminder of disappearing privilege.
But apart from Willie Hamilton, a Labor MP and relentless son of the working class, there is no serious republican movement in Britain. The last one died with the last Benthamite Utiliterians a century ago. Forty years back, one of Hamiltons predecessors, Jimmy Paxton, called for a vote on the monarchy. It was sustained 403 to 5.
Today, even Hamilton concedes a referendum would yield only one in three against the monarchy. Gallup Poll findings are one in five. The monarchy is as stable as any institution in the country.
Perhaps the oldest feature of Queen Elizabeth is her refusal to imitate the monarchs in those other, more successful social democracies - the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. There, sovereigns shop in the streets, stroll in parks, turn up in theaters and behave like ordinary mortals.
In the view of psychologists and social anthropologists, the robed and mysterious ceremonies that surround the queen are of crucial important - coronation, royal weddings, the state opening of Parliament. They bring the nation together in a common celebration of benign authority. They are also a means of paying tribute to the values that hold society together.
The queen serves as a focus. The celebrations planned for her Jubilee are variations on the same theme.
If she were not queen, she has said, she would like a simple life in the country with dogs and horses. She means, of course, the life of a rich woman in the country, breeding children, pedigreed dogs and race horses.
Perhaps the most extraordinary quality in Elizabeth II is the ability of this ordinary woman to radiate the luminious mysticism required to sustain the moral myths bound up in her person.