When the Queen marks 60 years on the throne with her Diamond Jubilee celebrations this week, millions of Britons will pay their respects, and party with her, during a four-day holiday weekend. We'll forget about our double-dip recession and European economic crisis, and revel in fêtes, fairs, royal toasts, bunting, fly pasts and souvenir supplements, while thousands of us are expected on the banks of the Thames in London, to see the Queen cruise past in a Jubilee Pageant.
Her continued ability to command admiration and respect is the envy of all other public figures, including many in her own family. Everyone else, from the Prime Minister to the Governor of the Bank of England and visiting heads of state -- even the Pope for goodness sake -- is regularly lambasted by the British media, on the Internet and in casual conversations throughout the country. Fame has made them fair game.
But not the Queen. Aside from a bit of gentle TV satire and a blip after the death of Princess Diana, she is rarely the butt of personal criticism, even by the 20% or so of Britons who are republicans. She is never, to my knowledge, the object of crude email jokes, unflattering rumors or cynicism of any kind. Never would you open a tabloid newspaper to find a center-page spread exposing her faults. Some scoff at what they see as people's gullible laudation of the monarch, but they are a small minority.
So why, especially in this meritocratic age, is the Queen the one public figure to whom we still find ourselves deferring, who remains above the fray? What is her X factor?
One explanation is that there must be a cynicism stopcock, which protects monarchs -- not just in Britain, but in Denmark, Belgium and Spain, where kings and queens have an uncontentious, ceremonial role. Yet surely a public so ready to find fault, snigger and condemn wouldn't hesitate to mete out the same treatment to the most obvious target of all, as the future King Charles will surely discover.
More likely, and more admirably, it is the Queen's personal dignity and aura that protects her, and as the decades go by, this becomes all the more powerful. During her recent let's-be-friends-again State visit to Ireland -- a tricky assignment even for someone of her vast experience -- she gave a diplomatic master class, exuding a perfect balance between warmth and regret. At the last count, she had hosted 100 or so State visits to Britain and made well over 50 such visits to other countries. The British have a hard-earned reputation for disgracing themselves abroad, yet the Queen never puts a foot out of place. Sketch writers despair.
I first saw her, in person, during her Silver Jubilee in 1977, on a visit to my home town of Birmingham. Most of the city seemed to be there, just to watch her wandering down a street. (To be fair, not much happened in Birmingham in those days). A quarter of a century later, during her Golden Jubilee, I caught a glimpse of her Gold Stage Coach flashing past on its way to St Paul's Cathedral in London. Both times I remember the star-struck awe on people's faces. And she continues to weave this magic, even in her 87th year.
Her unique appeal stems from her curious combination of stately celebrity and monumental blandness. She never gives an interview, or even an opinion -- something that younger generations of royals find it difficult to emulate. Once in her 60-year reign, in the 1980s, her officials let it be known that, as head of the British Commonwealth, she disapproved of Margaret Thatcher's policy towards South African apartheid. That aside, we have little idea what she thinks about anything, despite her ten-minute prime-time TV slot every Christmas Day. This annual message never contains anything memorable, consists mainly of platitudes, and she delivers it with stupendous vocal monotony. Yet millions hang off her every word, nodding along approvingly and muttering, "Isn't she marvelous?"
A recent TV documentary picked up on this blandness. It contended that all the changes that have happened to the monarchy during her long reign have been forced upon her. It denounced her for being a safety-first monarch, of never taking the initiative or trying something new. Without explicitly saying so, it accused her of being boring.
Yet while the Queen's insularity might disappoint journalists hungry for a royal soundbite, it is that very characteristic that has preserved her aura. It is the reason that she alone is excused, while her opinionated eldest son is often condemned.
It isn't until you lose something that you really value it. So the Diamond Jubilee is a time to appreciate Queen Elizabeth II while we can. For when she dies, we may mourn not so much the death of the monarch, but the passing of the last public figure to inspire unconditional respect.