WHEN Queen Victoria became the longest-reigning monarch in British history, the Church Times suggested that there was a difference between her reign and the long reigns of some of her predecessors. “In those others, though there were successes in war to make them conspicuous, there were, on the other hand, periods of civil strife, of social distress, of plague and famine, of loss of national prestige. To take the nearest of them, that of George III., the loss of America must be set against the glories of Nelson and Wellington. The reign of Queen Victoria, on the other hand, has been an era of continuous progress without a parallel in English history. It may not rival the age of Elizabeth in great literary names, but in all other respects the Victorian age will be known to posterity as unrivalled in the past, whether for material, intellectual, moral, or religious advance.” The Queen’s Church had grown into a worldwide communion, and had made remarkable progress in “every department”.
What shall we say of 1952 to 2015? We cannot share the Victorians’ confidence in progress — regarding their time or ours. Our definition of it may differ, too. Attitudes to imperialism present the strongest contrast, since it was under our present Queen that it became impossible to continue speaking of the Empire. When she acceded, the Indian Empire, Ceylon, and Burma had gained independence under her father. Malaya and Sudan soon followed, then the African dependencies, as the “wind of change” blew. The Queen assiduously promoted British relations with the New Commonwealth. But the Suez débâcle underlined the UK’s weakening position on the world stage. And, as the 1960s dawned, influence was passing to people with new ideas of manners and morality, crime and punishment, religion and authority. But there was a confidence that recalled the Victorians. Life in a welfare state was more comfortable for most than in the past; educational opportunities widened. It was “the affluent society” and the “white heat of technology”. With the oil crisis, industrial strife, and the loss of historic industries, from the 1970s on, doubts deepened about this. After the Thatcher revolution, prosperity was increasingly linked to financial markets and housing, as globalisation and technology changed the face of employment.
Britain had gained a new diversity from immigration, and closer links to Europe. More people travelled. Most had ceased going to church. But, of those who went, few went out of social conformity. As belief faded, too, the Queen began to speak about her Christian beliefs in a personal way. She revealed herself, and was respected for it. People saw afresh that her perseverance in duty was part of her faith. On the first state visit to Ireland by a British monarch since 1911, she embodied a spirit of reconciliation. Now, amid uncertainty about the future of the welfare state, and even of the state itself, she approaches a milestone familiar, steadfast, and loved. Long live the Queen.