A rare record awaits Queen Elizabeth II in 2022

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Sat 1 Jan 2022, 10:20 PM

Last updated: Sun 2 Jan 2022, 8:02 AM

Nothing quite prepares you for the moment when you meet Queen Elizabeth II. After years in the cut-and-thrust of journalism, meeting and interviewing prime ministers, ministers and top leaders, you would think meeting the British monarch would be just another part of the day job. I still remember the frisson when she walked in with her purse in the courtyard of British Council in New Delhi during her visit to India and Pakistan in October 1997 to mark 50 years of their independence. I was among some Chevening scholars who had been on fellowships to Britain, invited to meet her. Her schedule was tight, she had few minutes to speak to us, but the abiding memory is of how easy it was to speak to her. There was the aura of power in the smiling diminutive frame that comes with being the head of state, and I was aware that, diplomatically, the visit was not going too well, but there was a casual authenticity that reflected her genuine interest to speak to us and know of our experiences in Britain. Cultivated or not, many leaders and commoners across the globe remember that easy authenticity while interacting with her during her long reign that reaches another milestone on February 6.

A reign of 70 years is a formidable feat of longevity by any reckoning, bearing witness to not only wars, de-colonisations, momentous political events, technological and other advances in everyday life, but also to developments in the royal family that is widely known abroad and always makes global news. The Queen became Britain’s longest reigning monarch on September 9, 2015, when she overtook her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria (Empress of India), who reigned for 63 years and seven months. And that record may not be her last: if she remains on the throne until mid-2024, she will become the longest-reigning European monarch of all time, eclipsing the 72 years and 110 days of Louis XIV of France. A widely respected figure across the globe, her reign has seen her travel more widely than any other monarch, meeting tens of thousands of people. Known for her sense of duty and devotion to a life of service, she has been an important figurehead for the UK and the Commonwealth during times of enormous change.

The moment of her becoming the queen at 25 was not a happy one. In February 1952, Queen Elizabeth II — then Princess Elizabeth — was in a remote part of Kenya with her husband Prince Philip, when she became queen in an instant, when she received news from London of the death of her father, King George VI, who was in poor health. First in line to the throne, she cut short the visit and returned to Britain as Queen Elizabeth II, taking on all of the responsibilities which came with her new title, at a time when Winston Churchill was the prime minister and Britain was rebuilding itself in the post-war years. Her coronation was held in Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953; at her insistence, and for the first time, it was broadcast on radio and telecast live, watched by millions in Britain and across the globe. The Queen has since been a symbol of stability, continuity and authority in a changing Britain. Her popularity remains high, even if she does not always get a good press, mostly on issues related to members of the royal family, particularly after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. There have been 14 prime ministers of the United Kingdom during her reign, including the incumbent, Boris Johnson.

The Queen is also head of state of 15 countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and several island-nations in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean. The number of such countries has dwindled over the decades, many dropping her role when they became independent; the most recent one is Barbados, which became a republic in November, meaning the Queen is no longer its head of state. She is also the head of the Commonwealth, a group comprising 54 countries that were mostly part of the British Empire.

A Year of Celebration

Britain in 2022 is very different from the time she became the Queen. Battered by the Covid-19 pandemic and challenges related to Brexit, the Platinum Jubilee is nonetheless being built up as an event to herald a return to fun and normalcy along with the unparalleled pomp and pageantry of royal events that Britain is famous for. As she said during her recent Christmas message: “And February, just six weeks from now, will see the start of my Platinum Jubilee year, which I hope will be an opportunity for people everywhere to enjoy a sense of togetherness; a chance to give thanks for the enormous changes of the last 70 years — social, scientific and cultural — and also to look ahead with confidence.” A clean design by Edward Roberts, a 19-year-old graphics design student from Nottinghamshire, has been chosen as the emblem to mark the jubilee, featuring a stylised crown and working in the number 70, with the round background appearing similar to a royal seal. Roberts told the media after winning the competition run by the Victoria & Albert Museum: “I couldn’t believe I’d won it really. I thought I had achieved something by getting to the top 100 so to even win it — I was over the moon. For my design, I wanted to give a modern twist to the iconic elements of St Edward’s Crown, and so I created a continuous line, which I felt was a fitting representation of The Queen’s reign.”

The Johnson government has been promoting 2022 as a year of celebration, with the jubilee among major events that include the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and a festival called Unboxed: Creativity in the UK, featuring 10 projects that people will be able to visit in person or experience through broadcast and digital media. A large number of people across Britain, India, Pakistan and other Commonwealth countries have been preparing to celebrate the jubilee. The year also marks 75 years of India and Pakistan’s independence; Bollywood will reportedly make a big contribution during a 90-minute event in the grounds of the Windsor Castle at the end of the 2022 Royal Windsor Horse Show in May.

The jubilee includes a special 50 pence coin by the Royal Mint and an extended 4-day bank holiday weekend from June 2 to 5, featuring the Trooping the Colour, the lighting of beacons in Britain and Commonwealth capitals, a Service of Thanksgiving, a concert, a Platinum Pageant and nation-wide street parties. Officials say activity will build in the run-up to the bank holiday weekend, “when the eyes of the world will turn to the UK”. Plans for the jubilee have been developed with some of the UK’s leading creative minds, event organisers and digital design companies.

In keeping with tradition, a Platinum Jubilee Medal will be awarded to people who work in public service. This tradition stretches back to the reign of Queen Victoria when an official medal was designed to mark her 50th anniversary on the throne. Oliver Dowden, former culture secretary, says: “Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee will be a truly historic moment — and one that deserves a celebration to remember. We can all look forward to a special, four-day Jubilee weekend, when we will put on a spectacular, once-in-a-generation show that mixes the best of British ceremonial splendour with cutting edge art and technology. It will bring the entire nation and the Commonwealth together in a fitting tribute to Her Majesty’s reign.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel says: “Her Majesty The Queen is an example to us all — she has served the UK and the Commonwealth with the utmost dignity, steadfastness, and resolve throughout her remarkable reign. The Platinum Jubilee is a truly historic occasion, and it is right that the country should mark this celebration in a special way. This extension will enable families, friends and communities across England and Wales to raise a glass to toast Her Majesty The Queen and mark her incredible service to our country.”

The Future of the British Monarchy

The jubilee has also become an occasion to revive debates about the future of the monarchy after the Queen, and its relevance in the modern era of democracy. The next in line to the throne is Prince Charles, but the Queen has faced republican sentiment throughout her reign. Members of the royal family have not always been held in respect by sections of the British public, including the news media, while campaigners have long called for an end to monarchy and the head of state to be democratically elected.

Noting the Queen’s age — she will be 96 by the bank holiday weekend — The Guardian has called for a select committee of parliament to collect evidence from the public, members of the royal family and others on what should come next.

Campaign group Republic says that in place of the Queen, it wants someone chosen by the people, not running the government but representing the nation independently of politicians. Says Graham Smith of Republic: “The Queen is the monarchy for most people. After she dies, the future of the institution is in serious jeopardy. Charles may inherit the throne, but he won’t inherit the deference and respect afforded the Queen. The more debate about the monarchy the better as far as we’re concerned here in the UK. Because the more people take a closer look, the more they start looking for a democratic alternative.”

Prasun Sonwalkar is a journalist based in London.

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