Today on Wednesday 9 September 2015 at 5.30pm the Queen will overtake her great-great-grandmother Victoria to become our longest reigning monarch. At least she will if (shame on you!) you count the days – all 23,226 of them, plus 16 hours and 23 minutes. If you reckon by years (63), months (7) and days (2), the vagaries of the calendar (with leap years and months of varying lengths) place the anniversary a day earlier on 8 September. And if you calculate it by years and days only, a day later on the 10th.
Worried? Confused? Help is to hand in a ruling from the royal household. Solemnly headed “Passing the Milestone”, it declares that the calculations that give the 8th and the 10th are marred by “equivocations”; only the methodology of the 9th is free from such “pitfalls”.
What a relief! Nevertheless, 5.30 in the early evening is such an awkward time. What do you raise for the loyal toast? A late, stewed cup of tea? Or a too-early G&T? The one thing that you can be certain most of us wouldn’t do to cele-brate is spend the big moment with Nicola Sturgeon, the formidably able (and formidably abrasive) First Minister of Scotland. But the Queen will.
Is she doing it because she’s been told to, like shaking a gloved hand with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness? Or because she wants to? Is the meeting a sign of supreme confidence in the future of the monarchy north of the border? Or, as I believe, a sign of something subtler: the knowledge that time is on her side and not on that of the politicians, however showy or powerful they seem?
After all, she’s already seen off (the technical term is “been served by”) 11 prime ministers – including Churchill, Thatcher and Blair – and is now more than halfway through a 12th. They have come and gone and – with the exception of Churchill, Thatcher and Blair – have largely been forgotten. But she is still here. Still in her big, bright hats and sensible shoes. Changeless. Still the same. Still the Queen.
Why should First Minister Sturgeon be any different? Or any more durable? But it is not only time that is on the Queen’s side. So too is reputation. The reputation of our political class is at a nadir. Our leaders are a shoal of minnows. The House of Commons has not recovered from the expenses scandal. The Labour Party is writhing in convulsions, perhaps its death throes, perhaps the pangs of rebirth. In either case it has ceased to be an effective opposition for the foreseeable future.
The House of Lords is bloated in numbers and, in the shape of Lord Sewel, who recently resigned after being filmed allegedly taking drugs with prostitutes, has just offered the perfect emblem of a smug, self-appointed, over-remunerated elite in terminal decline.
This is profoundly worrying for anybody who cares about the health of our parliamentary democracy. But there is one very obvious winner: the Queen. For as the reputation of our politicians sinks, the Queen’s reputation rises. It’s a bit like a seesaw. Think back to the dark days of 1997 and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in the Paris car crash. The Queen was denounced as uncaring and worse, while the newly anointed Tony Blair and the as-yet-untainted Alastair Campbell offered a condescending hand to guide her through the quicksand of public opinion.
Would any politician or politician’s lackey dare to offer such a hand nowadays? Would it be needed?