Dutiful Queen Elizabeth turns 90 but A-word taboo

Dissenters in small minority as Britain gears up for monarch’s real but unofficial birthday

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's longest-serving monarch, has steered the monarchy through decades of social change. On April 21 she celebrates her 90th birthday. Video: Reuters


Monarchs do things differently. Should their birthday fall in a chilly month, for example, they are free to declare another, sunnier date. So while Queen Elizabeth’s actual birthday is today, her official birthday is celebrated on a Saturday in June.

This is why her 90th celebrations today are a trifle muted and no jolly street parties or parades will feature on news bulletins. That is all to come in June, when special late pub licences are gleefully anticipated in headlines such as “Cameron announces two-day bender for queen’s 90th birthday” and “Grog save the queen”.

The #Drinkforthequeen hashtag will undoubtedly generate more retweets than #Cleanforthequeen, an idea from Keep Britain Tidy to encourage subjects to clean up for the big day, urging: “What better way could we show our gratitude to her majesty than to clean up our country?”

A Guardian columnist declared that she “would rather swim in sewage than clean for the queen”, a sign perhaps that not everyone is in celebration mode.

Poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy had time to pen an ode to gas meters but none to mark the queen’s 90th, the Daily Telegraph reported indignantly. “It is a bit of an insult . . . She is the poet laureate, she should certainly be knocking out a poem”, royal biographer Ingrid Seward was quoted as saying.

The London Independent marked the Elizabethan years with a roll call of the “contentious figures the queen has cordially shaken hands with”, such as Bashar al-Assad, Robert Mugabe and the president of Kazakhstan.

Yet, the dissenters are a small minority. Seven in 10 of Elizabeth’s subjects believe they would be worse off without the monarchy, according to a Guardian/ICM poll in 2012. Only 10 per cent said they would opt for an elected head of state. Other UK polls put her approval ratings at 90 per cent.

So this day will be marked with due ceremony. She will be serenaded by a post office choir, then whisked off to open a bandstand in a local park, followed by a walkabout in Windsor. This evening, she will light the first in a chain of 1,000 beacons to create a celebratory trail of fire across the country and the world.

Humble address

David CameronJeremy Corbyn

The winner of The Great British Bake Off – as much a grand old institution now as the monarchy – has been commissioned to bake an orange drizzle birthday cake and the citizenry are pitching in with such offerings as cakes topped by corgis and a huge portrait fashioned entirely from old car parts (with headlights for earrings), made by Kwik-Fit to recall her work as a mechanic in the second World War.

At the tender age of 21, she promised in a broadcast: “My whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” Most would agree she has kept her side of the bargain, so in an age when even popes retire, it seems reasonable for a 90-year-old queen – even one formed in a time of steely, uncomplaining duty – to renege on a youthful promise.

Her 95-year-old-husband is in indifferent health. She is assured of a dynasty – a royal stamp to mark the birthday features four generations, down to the child George, “royal cuteness” perched on a stack of books. But the A-word – abdication – remains taboo in royal circles.

Abdication is “something you never mention in the queen’s presence; it would be like saying ‘f**k’ in church”, a palace official told Stephen Bates, author of Royalty Inc: Britain’s Best Known Brand.

Where the original taboo was related to her undutiful uncle David, Edward V111, the focus now is on Elizabeth’s successor amid decidedly mixed views on who should inherit. Only 39 per cent in the 2012 Guardian survey wanted the crown to pass to Prince Charles in line with the succession; nearly half wanted to pass it straight to Prince William.

Many believe the monarchy “lucked out” when the dutiful, constant Elizabeth landed in its lap. “Despite finding the whole born-to-rule thing abhorrent, I’m really rather fond of our queen. As figureheads go, she’s been a good one”, said one typical Guardian commenter. “If we have to have a monarch, she’s been close to immaculate, with the blips few and far between. All of which will only make Charles’s task of replacing her all the more difficult,” said another.

Uniquely successful brand

How to spread that fairy dust, wondered Bates, on a succession of middle-aged to elderly male kings? One royal photographer moaned that picture desks are already starting to say William “is just another middle-aged bald bloke in a suit”. And the nickname Workshy William appears to be sticking, probably unfairly. Kate, with her nice, high-street style, will never stir the kind of mass adulation generated by Diana.

Can the monarchy survive the changeover ? Some suggest that Britain’s tourist industry needs the royal spectacle; still, Rome and Paris do very well without one.

But would that extraordinary scene in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin five years ago have been quite so visceral if a different member of the royal family had bowed to our fallen dead ?

It all comes back to Elizabeth, the woman who has never given an interview, the blank canvas to be interpreted as people wish. Will there ever be her like again?