When 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen of the United Kingdom on 6 February 1952, her commonwealth realms bespeckled the planet. She wore the crown in countries like Australia, Canada, and Africa too. In fact, she’d rule England and a consortium of 54 other countries and a Commonwealth of Nations for the next 70 years.
Over 27 million people watched her coronation around the United Kingdom and Commonwealth because the princess, well, insisted — against the advice of Parliament and her Prime Minister — that the otherwise sacred, religious ceremony be televised. In fact, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was the largest audience ever assembled, and after 70 years on the throne today’s Platinum Jubilee in London rightly commemorates her reign over the Information Age.
The Royal Mail
Sharing information between computer systems is the hallmark of the Information Age and began with the development of the transistor in 1947, and the optical amplifier in 1952, which combined are the basis of computing and fiber optic communications. That these Homeric inventions coincide with Princess Elizabeth’s marriage and coronation are both a coincidence and the collateral of her reign.
She was the first among us, for example, to ever send an e-mail. When ARPANET — The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network — was established by the U.S. Department of Defense, they effectively created the first network. At Royal Signals and Radar Establishment — a telecommunications research center in the UK — Queen Elizabeth became the first woman in the world to create a profile and send an email. Her username? HME2: Her Majesty, Elizabeth II.
She joined Facebook in 2010, sent her first tweet soaring through the ether in 2014, and posted to Instagram in 2019. Conspicuously late to the party, social media would serve Buckingham Palace as an additional venue for official press releases that announce royal engagements, promote charities and national interests. While we don’t expect to see the Queen in a TikTok dance challenge, there are rare moments in which she takes #theroyalfamily into her own hands.
Last summer, for instance, the 95-year-old monarch showed her personal support for England’s soccer team ahead of the Euro 2021 final. In a post on IG, she wrote to the team manager Gareth Southgate, who led England to their first tournament final since in 1966.
“55 years ago I was fortunate to present the World Cup to Bobby Moore and saw what it meant to the players, management and support staff to reach and win the final of a major international football tournament,” Her Majesty’s message read. “I want to send my congratulations and that of my family to you all on reaching the final of the European Championships, and send my good wishes for tomorrow with the hope that history will record not only your success but also the spirit, commitment and pride with which you have conducted yourselves. Elizabeth R.”
Useful Servant, Dangerous Master
Public Relations is the practice of managing the public’s perception of an individual or organization. It involves promotion, of course, but at its best it’s about Crisis Management.
Following the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997, The Queen was the subject of caustic newspaper headlines that we’re calling for the abolition of the monarchy. Prime Minister Tony Blair warned, “this level of public backlash, a levied consensus amongst the British people, could effectively abolish the monarchy.” With a live broadcast from Buckingham Palace, the queen delivered three-minutes of condolence to the princess which effectively quelled a week of pandemonium, nearly a million people loitering around the gates of Buckingham Palace, and the very challenge being put to the British monarchy.
While two thousand people attended the Princess of Wales’ funeral at Westminster Abbey, over 2.5 billion watched the Queen’s televised broadcast — live. Due to the advances in satellite broadcasting six months earlier, the queen’s three minutes were bounced via satellite to the Dish Network’s now 200 channels throughout the world. Once again, the largest collective audience of all time. “I doubt there is anyone who understands the British people better than I,” she told Mr. Blair, “and it’s my belief that they’ll soon reject this mood, which is being stirred up by the press, in favor of a period of restrained grief and sober private mourning.”
While Her Majesty was the first to platforms like television, internet and satellite, it was becoming appallingly obvious that technology was exceeding humanity. The digital revolution, in particular, would deepen that crisis within representative democracy. “Traditional representative democracy within nations is no longer enough,” Prime Minister Harold Wilson told the Queen. “People want more participation and collaboration with their governments.”
By her Golden Jubilee, QEII had an approval rating of 94% amongst the British population, proving she could marshal public relations campaigns and crises across her commonwealth. But from William the Conqueror to her own reign, the British monarch’s role was constantly changing and forever being challenged over its impressive 1000-year history. The shift from absolute authority to soft power being the most spectacular transition of all.
The Age of Deference
For centuries, the English monarchy held a great deal of authority, but its history is full of challenges and concessions to that power.
King John’s signature on the Magna Carta in 1215 acknowledged that the monarch’s powers had limits and established that the crown could not levy taxes without the consent of a council of religious officials and feudal lords. That council of wealthy and powerful figures evolved into Parliament.
In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament invited William and Mary to invade England and depose King James II, who wanted absolute authority. The joint sovereign’s assented to the Bill of Rights, which legally required Parliament to be held regularly, granted full freedom of speech in Parliament and ushered in various civil liberties. While Britain does not have a single, written constitution like that of the United States, foundational documents like Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights comprise their form of government. And Princess Elizabeth, following the succession of her father, was being tutored at Eton on its fundamentals.
The Dignified > The Efficient
Today, the head of the British government is the Prime Minister, whilst the queen serves merely as a symbol of the nation. Elizabeth is the longest-serving female Head of State and the longest reigning British monarch in history, but as today’s Platinum Jubilee unfolds a silent question lingers. What will be her legacy?
In The English Constitution, published in 1867, Walter Bagehot asserts that the secret of the unwritten English constitution lay in having two kinds of institutions at once: The Dignified and The Efficient. The former “excite and preserve the reverence of the population” while the latter are “those by which it, in fact, works and rules.”
The Economist of London, writing about the Golden Jubilee 2o years ago, made a critical observation to Bagehot's analysis. “The Dignified institution of the monarchy is now also the only efficient one,” the Economist observed. “Parliament, Cabinet, Prime Ministers — all the traditional machines of efficiency — are creaking, and the very restraint and dignity with which the Queen has executed her job has provided a golden cloak around the mediocrity of civil service.”
At 70 years, that clock is now platinum. Known as a highly un-reactive and precious silver-white transition metal, today’s Platinum Jubilee reminds us that the efficiency of technology, and the inherent dignity of humanity, are the only real collaboration worth celebrating.