Diamond Jubilee: We won the lottery with Elizabeth II

Even as a young princess, the Queen showed remarkable dedication to the idea of service – and Britain is the greater for her self-sacrifice.

The Queen is not a cynic. During her long reign, her country may have moved from instinctive deference to raucous scepticism, from imperial giant to self-loathing satrap, but our Queen still believes in us, or believes in her duty to us

By Allison Pearson

01 Jun 2012

Like Shakespeare's Portia, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor has only ever been able to smile wryly at the idea of choice. “The lottery of my destiny bars me the right of voluntary choosing.”

The lottery of destiny meant that, from the age of 11 years and eight months, she knew that, thanks to flaky Uncle Edward's abdication, and barring her parents producing a male heir, she would one day be Queen. According to her maternal grandmother, Lady Strathmore, every night little Lilibet prayed fervently for a baby brother.

This Diamond Jubilee weekend is, among other things, a chance to reflect on our luck. Our luck that Lilibet's prayers were never answered and no son was born to George VI and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother). Our luck that the monarchy, which has thrown up some porcine popinjays and utter prats down the centuries, gave these isles in those exhausted post-war years an enchantingly serious girl with “an air of authority and reflectiveness astonishing in an infant,” according to Winston Churchill, who became the first of her 12 prime ministers.

Above all, the cheering crowds along the Thames tomorrow will be celebrating our luck that Elizabeth's reign has been long. And, let's face it, the Queen must never be allowed to die. I'm sorry, but there will have to be a statute against it. With dedication, duty and discipline, those d-words almost extinct at the start of the 21st century, she has carried a burden for us all. I guess we won't know quite how heavy it was until she is gone.

In three years and 101 days, our Queen will overtake Queen Victoria as the United Kingdom's longest-reigning monarch. Like most Britons, I have no memory of a time without her. If, for many years, we took her for granted, it was because she was modest and rarely made a mistake. The errors of six decades you can count on one hand. She has a fond tendency to give her sons a new honour when a dressing-down is called for (witness the Duke of York being awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order just as he was enmeshed in a serious row over his friendships with a convicted paedophile and a foreign tyrant). More seriously, she failed to go directly to Aberfan after the disaster in 1966. She made the same sort of mistake in 1997, staying at Balmoral, not understanding that she needed to provide a focal point for public grief after Diana died. For a few days, republicanism crackled dangerously in the London air until the Queen came home and restored Britain to herself.

Whenever her people have felt let down, she has made cautious changes whilst cleaving to Elizabeth I's motto: Semper Eadem. Always the same, which doesn't mean dull, though some have thought it so. Brenda was Private Eye's nickname for her. They weren't the only ones to mock or patronise.

“Duchesses find the Queen dowdy, frumpish and banal,” one snobby critic opined. Too bad. If Her Majesty wasn't a la mode, it meant she never went out of fashion. While glitzier monarchies fell into disrepute, our Tupperware model went from strength to strength.

I was never an ardent royalist. Coming from Welsh mining stock, I lack the vital deference gene. My admiration for her evolved gradually. As an adult dismayed by the shallowness and venality of politicians, I came to see that she alone was incorruptible. What I had once perceived as coldness became a priceless inability to fake emotion. While others debased their standards in pursuit of instant popularity, the Queen held back. She has never stooped to conquer. For this, I love her.

I am not alone. In a poll commissioned for the Diamond Jubilee, 80 per cent of Britons said they thought the country would be worse off without the monarchy. Perhaps the greatest proof of Elizabeth's triumph is that she has silenced the republican cause, for her lifetime at least. (It will be a different story for her heir. Prince Charles lacks his mother's gift for mystery; we may feel we know him all too well.) It's a curious fact, but even people who hate the monarchy admire the Queen.

The most famous person in the world, the Queen manages to be the opposite of a celebrity. To borrow from Henry Higgins, “We've grown accustomed to her face, like breathing out and breathing in.” Yet, although we carry her around every day in our wallets and lick the back of her head when we post a letter, she remains as mysterious as the ocean. We barely know our monarch of 60 years, and that remoteness is both her strength and her shield.

Who is she, this unremarkably remarkable woman, married for 64 years to a tricky but invaluable man, mother to four children (three of them divorced), grandmother of eight, and great-grandmother to Misses Savannah and Isla Phillips, free-spirited, democratic names which would have been unthinkable for Windsor children even a decade ago. Although the Queen is the embodiment of traditional values, she was also the prototype for the working mother, ploughing through her red boxes every day of the year, except Christmas and Easter; she preferred to indulge rather than chide her offspring, as guilty working mums do, when she dropped into the nursery at bath-time. Mummy to her children, but Your Majesty when they wanted something, according to Prince Andrew. Not easy to juggle domestic and divine rule. So more of a success as a wife than a mother – her generation generally being more focused on marriage than children – but mellowed now into a beloved granny. The kind of redoubtable woman they call the backbone of England, except this one happens to be its titular head.

I would love to have witnessed the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at breakfast this week, reading in their Daily Telegraph that Somerset County Council has told shopkeepers in Burnham-on-Sea that they're not allowed to hang several hundred feet of Jubilee bunting unless every lamppost is “stress tested” first. If, like Her Majesty, you were personally stress-tested by what she called “the terrible and glorious days of the Second World War” then you could be forgiven for thinking that your people have become the most frightful wimps.

But she doesn't (although Philip probably does). The Queen is not a cynic. During her long reign, her country may have moved from instinctive deference to raucous scepticism, from imperial giant to self-loathing satrap, but our Queen still believes in us, or believes in her duty to us. That is why she enables us to give vent to our deepest, dormant patriotic feelings. If there is a single theme running through each of her Christmas messages, it is an insistence that the country has a future and individuals can make a difference.

In April 1947, a lovely English girl, who was celebrating her 21st birthday, had sat behind a microphone in South Africa and made a promise. “It is very simple,” she began. “I declare before you that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”

She said it was simple, but it wasn't, was it? Turning yourself into a living symbol isn't straightforward. A young woman vowing to repress every selfish impulse, tread down all unruly feelings and dedicate herself to an abstract ideal of nationhood on behalf of 200 million people is not simple. I can never hear Princess Elizabeth's radio broadcast to the Empire and the Commonwealth, made in a high, girlish voice fluting with nerves, without being reduced to a helpless puddle of gratitude. “It has made me cry,” she admitted after reviewing the final draft of that script. And no wonder. Five years later her beloved father would be dead and they would place that heavy crown on her head in Westminster Abbey. Tears were an indulgence she would rarely permit herself in the years ahead.

Although the Queen would be amused to be called a feminist icon, her success as a wise, steadying counsel to 12 prime ministers has been a wonderful, subliminal advert for female power. In a newspaper column of 1952, shortly after her accession to the throne, one writer argued that, “if, as many earnestly pray, the accession of Elizabeth II can help to remove the last shreds of prejudice against women aspiring to the highest places, then a new era for women will indeed be at hand”. The columnist's name was Margaret Thatcher.

I witnessed that power once, when I got an invitation to a reception for the media at Windsor Castle in 2002. Millions of words will be printed over the next few days trying to explain the Elizabeth Effect. All I know is that it's like standing near a mountain or a great monument: for a few seconds the life-clock stops and you say, like a delighted child, I did see the QUEEN!

She is old now, her face heavier. In repose, the jowly scowl can make her look like her grandmother, the frankly terrifying Queen Mary who believed Royals should never smile in public and taught little Lilibet everything she needed to know about duty. She has learnt the rest by herself and when she smiles, as she does more and more often since the wedding of William and Kate, it's because I think she knows her work is nearly done.

Though, of course, the Queen will live for ever. What on earth are we supposed to do without her? “It is simple,” she said. “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” But it wasn't simple, was it? Turning yourself into a living symbol isn't straightforward. A woman dedicating herself to an abstract ideal of nationhood on behalf of 200 million people is not simple. But she did it. And when you see her tomorrow, on that barge, smiling and waving in the pouring rain, please remember one thing. She did it for us.