On Wednesday, after more than 63½ years on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II surpasses her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, as the longest-reigning British monarch. Because New Zealand did not become part of the British Empire until several years after Victoria’s accession, Elizabeth has been this country’s longest-reigning monarch since 2013. Between them, Victoria and Elizabeth have been New Zealand’s head of state for more than 70% of its existence as a separate colony, dominion or ‘realm’.
The two reigns have an inverse symmetry. Victoria became monarch in an era of imperial expansion accompanied by economic and social upheaval (think Chartism). She lived long enough to experience the high point of empire – absolute British rule over India – but also anxiety about the rise of Germany and the United States, and trouble with the Irish.
Elizabeth’s era has been one of imperial decline. By the time she succeeded her father, King George VI, in 1952, the country that had stood alone against Hitler in 1940 was no longer a great power. The Indian subcontinent was already independent, and the rest of the Commonwealth soon followed suit. In 2015 the United Kingdom is a middling country on the edge of Europe whose internal unity can’t be taken for granted.
The monarch’s role has shrunk along with her domain. Victoria – especially while her husband Albert was alive – expected ‘her’ ministers to at least take her views seriously. Even after the Reform Act 1832, only 5% of Britain’s population had the vote, and Parliament and government were dominated by an elite steeped in deference. Today, Elizabeth acts only on the advice of the people’s representatives.
Queen Victoria never visited New Zealand – or India, even though she was installed as its Empress and studied Hindustani. Elizabeth II was the first reigning monarch to visit New Zealand, in 1953, six months after her coronation. She has been back nine times, on the last occasion in 2002 as part of a golden jubilee tour of the Commonwealth. Since then younger members of the royal family have visited this country frequently.
The significance of the monarchy today is largely cultural. In the 1950s every household seemed to have a souvenir of the first visit by the young Queen and her dashing naval officer husband. Tea towels hung proudly on walls and commemorative booklets graced mantelpieces. Watching the Queen’s Christmas message on television remains part of the Christmas Day ritual for many households.
Though Elizabeth retains an aura of authority – or at least, mystery – royal pomp and ceremony isn’t what it used to be. One milestone, in Wellington in 1970, was the Queen’s first so-called ‘walkabout’ (as it was dubbed by the British press corps, in a misguided reference to Australian Aboriginal custom). There was a strict ‘no-touching’ policy in relation to the royal person – yet today, a selfie with Prince Harry is probably the most sought-after souvenir of a royal visit.
As the silken bonds of empire continue to fray, the record royal reign is also likely to be one of the last, at least for New Zealanders.