The day after Tony Blair became the British prime minister in May 1997, his first order of business was a formal meeting with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. He was instructed on the basic protocol of "kissing hands." Upon being introduced, he bowed, took her extended hands and brushed them lightly with his lips.
The stilted tradition signifies the ancient bond between prime minister and sovereign and her bequest to him of her authority to govern. There was no question as to the relationship. "She was head of state. I was her prime minister," as Blair puts it in his memoirs.
Blair had met the Queen before the election of 1997, yet this was his first official "audience." One aspect of her character struck him. The Queen was shy, but also direct. She reminded him -- exactly as actress Helen Mirren portrayed the scene in the 2006 film The Queen -- that he was her 10th prime minister, and Winston Churchill was her first, since her accession to the throne at the age of 25 in February 1952 following the death of her father George VI.
Since the Queen and her people were in mourning over the loss of her father, the celebratory coronation was not held for another year and took place 60 years ago on June 2, 1953, at which time she was crowned Queen of the U.K., Canada and other Commonwealth countries.
A few weeks ago, the Queen's directness was captured by television cameras during her visit to the Chelsea Flower Show, an event on the royals' social calendar for a century. Her grandson, Prince Harry, 28, was excited to show his grandmother the garden he had done in honour of his African children's charity, Sentebale.
"What do you think, Gran?" he asked. The Queen, who turned 87 on April 26, inspected the garden for a moment and not pulling any punches even with her gregarious grandson asked him pointedly: "Do you want an honest opinion?"
Longevity for a monarch or politician can be a double-edged sword. There is a comfort in a lengthy reign or term in office, but sometimes that can make a leader unfocused, complacent and out of touch.
Apart from, perhaps, her questionable judgement in underestimating the worldwide reaction to the accidental death of Princess Diana in August 1997, the Queen, though traditional in disposition and outlook, has sufficiently changed with the times to keep the monarchy relevant. (According to Sarah Bradford, one of her biographers, the last time Elizabeth made a public spectacle of herself was when she cried during her christening.) She was astute enough, for example, to volunteer for her and the other royals to start paying income tax in 1992 like all British citizens. The Queen may not have the power that British rulers once wielded, but there is no arguing about her influence.
Recently released British cabinet documents reveal the Queen takes her constitutional role seriously and does make a difference. Dating back to the late 1990s, the Queen has impacted on a wide range of parliamentary bills dealing with "military authority, civil partnership, higher education, paternity pay and child maintenance." Last year, she privately questioned the home secretary, Theresa May, about the legality of extraditing Abu Hamza al-Masri, a Muslim cleric to the United States. (He had been in British custody since 2004 and was, in fact, extradited to the U.S. in October 2012.)
In this way, she has modelled herself after her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose reign of 63 years and seven months (1837-1901) she will surpass in September 2015. Though the transition of the British monarch from absolute rule by divine right to constitutional figurehead began with the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 and eventually led to the supremacy of Parliament, it was Victoria who more than any other British monarch experienced this devolution of power.
Not only did she have to cope and adapt to the enormous social and economic changes of the 19th century, she also witnessed and accepted the reality of responsible government -- that the executive or prime minister and his cabinet were responsible to Parliament, and that the queen or king (the governor general in Canada) had to accept the advice of the ministers.
In the British election of 1841, the Conservatives led by Sir Robert Peel defeated the Whig leader and the Queen's favourite, Lord Melbourne. Victoria had no choice but to accept the will of the people, though she resented it.
"It is a paradox that constitutional monarchy arose as a result of political forces of which Victoria, the first constitutional monarch, disapproved," says Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of history at Oxford University.
But he adds Victoria also saved the monarchy. Under her immediate predecessors, George III (an "imbecile"), George IV (a "profligate") and William IV (a "buffoon"), the royals were unpopular and in trouble. Despite ascending to the crown at the age of 18, Victoria was the first monarch to grasp the business executive nature of her role. "She showed," writes Bogdanor, "that an assiduous sovereign could exert an influence no less important for being exercised within the framework of constitutional rules which constrained her power."
Following the death of her husband, Prince Albert in 1861, Victoria nearly disappeared from public view. In contrast, the octogenarian Queen Elizabeth maintains a schedule someone half her age would find taxing.
Last year during her Diamond Jubilee, the Queen participated in 370 public events. (Prince Charles did top his mother with 592 events, though his sons, William and Harry did less than 100.) As British journalist Harry Mount pointed out, "the only person in public life to match her energy levels is her 91-year-old husband." That may change, the result of Prince Philip's declining health.
The Queen, too, fits into her full schedule all the duties associated with being the head of state. "Our Queen," Mount asserts, "is the most dutiful monarch in 1,000 years."
Elizabeth was, of course, not destined to be the Queen. Her life dramatically changed in December 1936 when she was 10 with the abdication of her uncle King Edward VIII so that he could marry American Wallis Simpson. Her father Albert or Bertie became George VI and she became the next in line to the throne. "Does that mean you will have to be the next queen?" her six-year-old sister Margaret asked her. "Yes, someday," Elizabeth replied. "Poor you," said Margaret.
Elizabeth saw it differently. And since the day in 1947 on her 21st birthday when she pledged, "I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong," she has more than fulfilled her promise.
It is true that during the Queen's 60 years on the throne, British political and economic power has declined, yet the Queen remains steadfast in exercising her authority and in so doing has single-handily guaranteed the survival of the British monarchy for the foreseeable future.
Now & Then is a column in which Winnipeg historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.