It’s been widely noted in various newspapers and websites that Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning monarch in British history yesterday, passing her great-grandmother Queen Victoria. Victoria, who was born while George III (whose reign from 1760 to 1820 was the longest before Victoria’s) was still king, reigned from 1837 to 1901. A dashing young army officer and war correspondent who was elected to Parliament in Victoria’s old age was Queen Elizabeth’s first Prime Minister more than 50 years later when she came to the throne in 1952. His name was Winston Churchill.
From George III to Prince William in three lifetimes: it’s a staggering thought and one that should remind us that the world of fashionable thought and establishment politics, which looks so imposing and permanent, shifts with dizzying speed. In George III’s time, the industrial revolution was just kicking off, the United States was a weak emerging power, and the absolute monarchs of Europe were firmly in the saddle.
During Victoria’s reign, Britain rose to the zenith of global power as the Industrial Revolution transformed the world. Slavery was abolished, democracy took root in Britain, France became a Republic, and nationalism began to break up the great autocracies: Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire were staggering toward their demise. The first stirrings of nationalism in what would become the Third World were beginning to be felt, and the ideas of an obscure German socialist, Karl Marx, were resonating in world politics. The railroad and the telegraph had created networks of communication and information that eclipsed anything known in the past; the human race blew through more change, and more disruptive change, in Victoria’s long lifetime than ever before.
During Winston Churchill’s political career, the pace of change accelerated still farther. Radio didn’t exist when Victoria died; Elizabeth II’s coronation would be televised. Fascism and Communism conquered more than half the world. The British Empire fell. Nuclear weapons transformed international politics and cast a shadow over the human future that is still darkening today. 2500 years of imperial history came to an end in China. The British lost India. Hundreds of millions perished in the two most destructive wars humanity had ever known. The United States became the supreme global power. Stalin and Mao instituted the most monstrous and murderous dictatorships ever seen. Jazz swept the world; modernism swept the arts.
Queen Elizabeth’s reign has seen more of the same. The Cold War came and went. China became a great power. Half of Africa converted to Christianity. India and Pakistan developed nuclear weapons. The Civil Rights movement shook the foundations of American society; feminism and the gay rights movement challenged assumptions that for millennia seemed unshakeable and permanent. The rise of the internet transformed communications as profoundly as the rail and telegraph did during Victoria’s reign. The computer is proving to be the most revolutionary invention that humanity has come up with, and the transformation of human society by the information revolution is still in its early stages.
All three lifetimes have been marked by two continuities: one is the presence of accelerating, transformative change in every dimension of human life; the other is the smugness of establishments and fashionable pundits who assume and believe that the important questions have been answered by and large, and that nothing important will change.
That the British monarchy and the American constitution have survived these tumult-filled times is a remarkable example of political stability in the midst of revolution; it would take a more confident prophet than me to predict what will happen to these, and to many other institutions and ideas that seem so solid and permanent today over another long lifetime.
Our British allies are singing “God Save the Queen” to mark a great moment in a distinguished reign; “God Help us All” is what the historian is led to murmur as the waves of change keep pounding the shore.