“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service”.
Of all the millions of words being written about the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, one sentence echoes across the decades – the simple promise she made on her 21st birthday to serve. It has been a promise kept, surely a wondrous achievement in this era of chronically broken promises and hollow undertakings.
This in itself is cause for celebration the world over, even among ardent republicans. Elizabeth didn’t choose her life. It chose her. And in the cruelest of circumstances when her playboy “Uncle David” – King Edward VIII- abandoned the throne and left her shy father – George VI – to pick up the pieces. By their example, father and daughter turned a constitutional crisis and a family tragedy into a triumphant assertion of age-old notions of duty and public service.
It may seem strikingly old fashioned in this age of cheap celebrity but along with continuity, that’s the monarchy’s premier attraction. As the world tunes in for the Jubilee commemoration, just what are we celebrating? A milestone for a pleasant woman of simple tastes at the apex of the social hierarchy? A reflection of our own lives through the prism of a human being who has been a constant presence all our lives? A fascination with the pomp and pageantry of an institution that’s survived a thousand years? Admiration for the way a consummate professional turns up all over the world seemingly interested in everything?
Undoubtedly, all these things are part of why Elizabeth the Second is worthy of celebration this weekend. But more than anything else, it’s because in a high-pitched voice cutting through the airwaves from South Africa long ago, she made a simple undertaking and kept it.