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What Does the Queen Do?

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In February, the English cricket team — virtual demigods in their country after defeating Australia last summer — were attending a reception amid the Rembrandts and Rubenses in the Picture Gallery of Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth had just pinned medals on the athletes’ chests signifying their new status as Members of the Order of the British Empire, and was strolling among them, chatting and laughing with their proud families. She was the star of the show, making people grin — indeed, sometimes erupt with laughter — her own face switching between that studied placidity that is her trademark and a really dazzling smile. After the Queen moved on to another clutch of guests, Ashley Giles, one of the cricketers, appeared starstruck. He is 33, used to the pressure of top-level sports and the adulation of crowds. Yet he was visibly moved. “Just coming to Buckingham Palace in itself is an incredible honor for me,” he said, shaking his head. “But meeting the Queen makes this one of the most memorable days of my life.” Really? That grandmotherly figure who always carries a handbag and never says anything controversial? “She is a living link with our history, which is very important to me. She’s also very sharp. I think she does a fantastic job.” Then he added, slowly and with feeling: “And she is the most … beautiful … woman!”

Chalk one up for the enduring enigma of royalty. Long ago, mystery added to the authority of Kings; now, the idea of monarchy is self-evidently nonsensical. How can one person picked by the lottery of birth possibly embody a whole nation? What can a constitutional monarch like Elizabeth II, prohibited from exercising any real power, actually do to justify her country’s steady devotion — the crowds who line up to cheer when she passes, her face on each coin and bill and postage stamp, a national anthem that beseeches God to save her? What does she really do to earn something for which respect is way too small a word?

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The Queen is 80 on April 21, and in the run-up to her birthday, TIME has been exploring how the institution of the British Crown retains meaning by watching the Queen at work. At her direction, the palace also granted unusual and exclusive access to her senior aides and her son Andrew. But in keeping with her lifelong custom, she granted no interview; she prefers to be observed rather than questioned.

The Queen is acutely aware that the continued success of the monarchy depends on the careful nurturing of popular consent — and that a peculiar danger of being the best-known woman in the world for over half a century is becoming background noise, ubiquitous but forgotten. Her press secretary, Penny Russell-Smith, says that the last 15 years of coverage, focused mostly on the misadventures of the younger royals, has created “a generation of readers and viewers who aren’t aware of what the Queen’s work is all about.” The antidote is more exposure. So not for the Queen a quiet retirement: she plans to keep working, and for people to see her working, as long as she can manage.

What, precisely, is the Queen’s job? There is not much she can do entirely at her own whim. Technically, she could dissolve Parliament to get rid of a Prime Minister she disliked, but it would provoke an unthinkable constitutional crisis if she tried. The great 19th-century journalist and constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot said the monarch had the prerogative “to be consulted, to encourage and to warn” the government of the day, but it is one Elizabeth II never exercises in public (unlike her opinionated son Charles). Yet she still derives power from her twin roles as head of state — the one who opens and dissolves Parliament, makes splashy visits abroad and hosts dinners for foreign leaders — and head of nation, a focus for British unity and identity, rewarder of excellence, a visible oasis of continuity in an accelerating world, even as Prime Ministers (she’s had 10) come and go. A clutch of other symbolic roles — Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, chief of the armed forces — reinforce a peculiar kind of omnipresence in public life. In a media-soaked age, that is a fantastic asset.

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No matter how irrational may be people’s desire to invest their love of country in a single person, the Queen’s well-polished routine still resonates. In February she went to Reading, 65 km west of London, to open a hospital wing. She stepped out of the limousine wearing a lime green suit; the townspeople cheered and the hospital’s cooks pressed their faces to the windows. As officials and doctors gave her a tour, the corridors were lined with hundreds of staff, patients and families who cheered and waved flags. Teenagers laughed and gave each other high-fives for snatching good snaps of her with their mobile phones. Charles Anderson, who had suffered a mild stroke, said the Queen “is very warm, very easy to talk to. Helluva job she’s got. I wouldn’t want it.” She stopped to chat with Linda Patterson, whose arm was in a cast after breaking her thumb. “I think I’m going to cry, I’m so excited!” Patterson said a few seconds later — and did.

The assistant private secretary on duty, Edward Young, pointed out the Queen’s professional skill: at just the right moment she turned to give the cameras a perfect backdrop of happy, flag-waving children. The emotional pitch was not quite the hormonal exchange of former U.S. President Bill Clinton working a rope line, but in her subdued way the Queen is a rock star whose charisma is curiously magnified because she seems to have no desire for the fame she cannot escape. As her limousine crawled away (she deadpanned to the chauffeur who tested it at the factory that its most important quality was how it handled at 5 km/h), she had accomplished her goal, which Young describes as “seeing and being seen by as many people as possible, and for them to go away feeling something special.”

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It is a balmy period in her 54-year reign. The tabloid fodder of Charles and Diana, Andrew and Fergie, the death of her beloved mother at 101, are all behind her. Charles is at long last married to Camilla, which according to courtiers has reassured his parents about his long-term soundness; Princes William and Harry appear to be well launched. Robert Lacey, one of the Queen’s biographers, says the long-running Windsor saga has resonance with the public once more. She has become a matriarch in autumn, presiding over “a family happy once again, the more credible for the traumas they have been through.” Her country is prosperous and generally content with her performance. According to a 113-page Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by Buckingham Palace in January and seen by TIME, only 19% would like to switch to a republic — one more percentage point than in 1969. “This is the most stable measure in British polling,” says Robert Worcester, who presented the poll to palace staff. No matter how you break down the respondents — young, old, ethnic minorities, Londoners, non-Christians, local opinion leaders, readers of the Sun tabloid, readers of the “quality” dailies — no more than 25% of any group wants to dump the royals. Even after a decade of tumult for the Windsors, 68% of Britons want to retain them. “That’s astonishing,” says Sunder Katwala, head of the Fabian Society, a think tank affiliated with the Labour Party. “It represents an absolute failure for British republicanism,” to which he is instinctively sympathetic. In fact, there’s no real debate at all on the future of the monarchy in Britain. Republicans want to abolish it, so won’t discuss reform. The government won’t touch the subject with a barge pole. So what should be uncontroversial proposals, like an end to the ban on the heir to the throne marrying a Catholic, are never discussed. Intelligent debate about what kind of monarchy Britain should have in the 21st century has disappeared “into a kind of Bermuda triangle,” says Katwala.

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Just a few years ago, few would have predicted such an outcome. That republicanism has no political traction after a period when many Windsors acted less as exemplars than as reality-TV stars is due largely to the Queen. She may be remote, but her dedication to duty gets widespread respect. It could hardly be otherwise. Since 1952, she has received more than 3 million letters, hosted around 1.1 million guests at her garden parties, and made 256 official overseas visits to 129 countries. Asked to explain his mother’s relationship with the country, Prince Andrew says: “It’s slightly complicated for people to grasp the idea of a head of state in human form, but I would put her appeal down to consistency. In their eyes, she’s never let them down.”

Still, the battering the Windsors took in the 1990s, especially the emotional gusts during the week after Diana’s death when the Queen seemed to be a stonyhearted defender of a hollow status quo, has left the family permanently on guard. According to the Ipsos MORI poll, 81% think Britain will have a monarchy in 10 years, but only 32% think it will in 50. Says one of her senior aides: “One can never be complacent.”

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Walk around Buckingham Palace — a combination of family home, hotel for foreign dignitaries, stage set for national ceremony, rambling office complex and art museum that reflects the Queen’s jumble of roles — and complacency feels far away. If you think of the palace as Monarchy Inc. and compare its operations to a decade ago, the production line has been thoroughly overhauled — a process begun before Diana’s death but accelerated in its wake. “People who view us as a Victorian institution aren’t looking beyond the front of the building,” says David Walker, an air vice marshal who is now master of the household, responsible for all public and private entertainment. In 2000 the palace didn’t have e-mail. Now it has a full-fledged secure network and a snazzy website with an intranet under development. Staff can get BlackBerries.

The average age of courtiers has gone down; their professional qualifications have gone up. Instead of being filled by discreet inquiries at a gentleman’s club, the latest assistant private secretary’s post was publicly advertised, and attracted over 400 applications. It went to an experienced financier. Focus groups probe whether staff are happy in their jobs; salaries have increased; there are “team away days” and rotations of staff to and from government departments and private industry, from which increasing numbers of senior managers are now drawn. “I think people expect we’re very traditional and hierarchical,” says Elisabeth Hunka, the human resources chief, who arrived at the palace from the clothing industry — “red carpets, long corridors. But there are a lot of highly able people here and a lot of humor, and it creates a buzz. It’s a surprisingly democratic organization, because people pitch in. And the Queen sets a very good example. She’s very hardworking and never seen to have airs and graces.”

A crucial element of the overhaul has been financial. The palace now directly spends a lot of the money that different government departments used to spend on its behalf, which has allowed it to take control over its own operations, establish budgets and cut costs that might otherwise have continued on autopilot. (One example: the certificates people receive when they obtain honors are now generated by computer rather than calligrapher, saving $27 approximately 5,000 times a year.) There’s more public disclosure too, in particular an annual financial report launched at a press conference and published on the Web. Last year the monarchy spent $64 million of public money (2.3% less than the previous year, adjusted for inflation) to fund its activities on behalf of the state, such as royal visits, the upkeep of palaces and official entertainment — the cost, as the palace is now media-savvy enough to stress, of a loaf of bread per citizen. Alan Reid, the former chief operating officer of the accounting and consulting firm KPMG who now serves as keeper of the privy purse, says the goal is “not a cheap monarchy, but a value-for-money monarchy.” The Queen’s natural frugality (except for her racehorses) is well known: footmen at the palace are told to avoid the center of the hallways to preserve the carpets, and she reminds people to turn off lights. Apart from Prince Charles, whose Duchy of Cornwall estate funds his private and official duties, and Prince Philip, she supports the other royals using her own money. Walker says, “If you look at the number of people and amount of expenditure supporting the head-of-state function, it’s much, much cheaper than virtually any comparable country.”

To be sure, there is still criticism of the special breaks royals receive. As part of the deal that saw her start paying income tax in 1993, the Queen arranged inheritance-tax exemptions for what she received from her mother, and what she will bequeath to Charles. But disclosure has usefully illuminated the distinction between her personal wealth and the Crown’s. She used to be commonly described as Britain’s richest person, with a fortune estimated at $7.6 billion by the Sunday Times Rich List in 1993, but last year’s list pegs it at $507 million, making her 180th.

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What a politician might call “image management” has been spruced up, too. Since 2000, the palace has commissioned annual polls and focus groups to assess how people feel about the monarchy. A research department weighs what kind of trips and events will have the most impact. Press aides labor to plan backdrops so the cameras will take away an image that reinforces the message their boss is trying to highlight that day. A press office whose chief used to be known on Fleet Street as “the abominable no man” now promptly returns phone calls. The Queen’s Christmas broadcast no longer has her staring straight into the camera, but uses video clips to illustrate her points. Her Majesty even carries a cell phone inside that handbag. All in all, Prince Andrew says, “I think this organization is very good at change management. We live it, we work it all the time. Change is an almost continuous process” — so much so, “that it’s almost imperceptible.”

That “imperceptible change” is exactly the sweet spot the Queen is trying to hit, says a senior adviser. Moving glacially, of course, can accentuate the sense that she is out of date. But by background as well as policy, that’s the way she wants it. Her “Uncle David,” King Edward VIII, loved making waves before he abdicated in 1936, and spooked his successors about playing the reformer too overtly. “No gimmicks!” the Queen has told aides. “I am not an actress!” She wants the monarchy to be a focus for continuity and enduring patriotic values, which make instinctive sense to her. She was never a rebel: she venerated her father, a shy man with a stutter who was thrust into kingship by the abdication but mastered his task through hard work. During her wartime adolescence, the idea of obedience and doing one’s duty for the greater good was the norm. She really meant it when she said at age 21 that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service,” and has not changed her core old-fashioned values. But for the monarchy as an institution, she is averse to risk, not to change itself; she knows staying still has its risks, too.

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The Queen has also subtly refurbished the most public aspect of her work — her interaction with ordinary people. She has never been naturally extroverted, perhaps a reaction to growing up so famous that as a child she had a territory named after her in Antarctica and was immortalized in Madame Tussaud’s astride a pony. Her early friend and bridesmaid Pamela Hicks noted the unrelenting press of “intimate strangers” always peering in alongside motorcades. But over the years the Queen has learned to make encounters more enjoyable — and memorable. When she grants honors, she studies biographies of each recipient and writes down a few words which an aide reads to her as the person approaches, allowing her to start an informed conversation — one she knows will be repeated to family and friends. (She reads fast and has a flypaper memory.) Dinners during regional trips used to strand her at the top of a long table with predictable dignitaries; now she will be at a round table with perhaps a nurse, the leader of the local Sikh temple and an entrepreneur. Parties at Buckingham Palace are increasingly built around themes, like honoring transport workers and members of the emergency services after the London bombings of July 2005. She has aligned the palace with the modern world in other barely perceptible steps: relaxing the rules for the 30,000 invitees to her garden parties so that men needn’t spend money on a morning suit, and chucking out the old rule that restricted state banquets to married apparent heterosexuals. Malcolm Ross, a kind of chief of protocol in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for 14 years, says the Queen takes a seriously pragmatic approach to ceremony: “Ceremony is meaningful only if it is relevant. It must make sense.”

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What does the Queen herself have to do with these changes? Does she benignly preside while staffers take the initiative, or is she a hands-on manager? Her staff say that she is almost spookily well-informed and observant. “Her memory of detail, her instinct for what is right, is absolutely superb,” says Ross. Hunka, the personnel chief, says “she’s obviously not immersed in the details of employment legislation, but whenever an issue gets to her, her feedback is never against what I would say as an experienced human resources person. She’s always on the beam; it’s uncanny.” Prince Andrew says, in some awe, “Here’s a quote you can have. The Queen’s intelligence network is a hell of a lot better than anyone’s in this palace. Bar none. She knows everything. Everything. She just knows. I don’t know how she does it.” The Queen will spot tiny errors in memos, and approves details as small as bedroom assignments and whether a photographer may stand in a corner at a state banquet. She doesn’t usually get cross. “Do you really think so?” is usually enough to signal staff they are proceeding down a dead end. But as for changing the fundamental ways the palace works, she sticks with her instinctive pattern and mostly waits for suggestions. Her biographer Lacey calls her “not an innovator, but a sensitive responder, and she is very well advised. Successful monarchs are great listeners.”

She is a consistently popular boss — which has not always been true for all members of the royal family. “There’s a lot of esprit de corps here,” says Ross. “People stay a long time, and they don’t get rich. It’s because she’s wonderful to work for. You cannot bluff, you cannot pull the wool over her eyes. You get clear direction, never ambiguous, and once a decision is made, it’s not changed. The hardest thing about the job is ever letting her down.” Hunka says the palace “is almost without politics. I never have to write a memo to cover myself. There’s no top job to compete for, and no revolving door of CEOs you have to please.” Reid, who climbed to the top of KPMG, calls the Queen “the best person I’ve ever worked for. She lets you get on with the job, but she and her husband see things with great clarity. Sometimes we look at every conceivable angle; she’ll just cut through it all.”

And what does she make of it? Does she like her job? Does she never tire of the grind, the rigid code of behavior, the deluge of small talk? Her diaries, carefully tended, may give the answer, but they will not be seen until after her death. She once said she would have liked to be a woman living in the country with lots of horses and dogs. Even today, one of her greatest pleasures is owning racehorses and nipping out to watch the 2:35 at Cheltenham on TV. Most likely, the concept of liking her job would seem odd to her. Prince Andrew explains: “People say to me, ‘Your life must be very strange.’ But of course I’ve not experienced any other life. It’s not strange to me. The same way with the Queen. She has never experienced anything else. That life, that knowledge, that wisdom is purely natural to her.” Pamela Hicks agrees that the Queen, while gratified if people respond to her work, does not seek a conventional sense of happiness in it. Duty is its own reward: “She is very religious, but she is also philosophical. She feels she must do the job she has been given and that it will be for others to judge whether she has succeeded.”

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She is naturally curious about people, and observant; this, “plus her fantastic memory, means she is not bored,” says Hicks. A dry sense of humor helps. On a walkabout in Scotland, one person told her, “You look just like the Queen!” “How reassuring,” she replied. When a visiting head of state managed to slip out of Buckingham Palace overnight, she quipped: “Has he taken his wife?” She can laugh at herself too, as when a new footman pulled back her chair as she stood up after a family dinner, but then immediately went to sit down again to continue a conversation and hit the floor. The whole family found this uproarious (but she also made sure to reassure the mortified footman).

As a child she was upbraided for saying something as racy as “my goodness.” But “she’s very modern,” says Reid. “People don’t realize it. Some people who work for her don’t.” Her granddaughter Zara Phillips has had a tongue stud, lived in sin with a jockey, posed for Hello! magazine and sold the rights, but the Queen is very fond of her. The monarch who said in 1955 (following the government’s decision) that her sister, Margaret, could not remain a royal princess if she married a divorced man has had no qualms about her grandson William living with his girlfriend. A senior aide says she is fundamentally an optimist, “a glass-half-full” kind of person, who would endeavor to do a good job even if she did not like the country Britain had become — but “she is very comfortable with modern Britain.” One thing she definitely dislikes: people who come to see her when they have colds. She does not want the people depending on her, in a program arranged six months in advance, to get messed around by her having to stay in bed.

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If she lives as long as her mother, she will preside until 2027. “She is incredibly fit and agile,” says Andrew. Watching her hustle down a corridor to a meeting in an electric aqua dress, a rolling mass of corgis and dorgis in tow, she exudes surprising energy. In the country, she rides (helmetless) or walks the hills every day. Her staff is organizing her schedule to keep her visible and active with less strain by hosting more events at Buckingham Palace, and when she travels, seeing more people at slightly fewer venues. Her children will pick up more of her duties. But all who know her say that barring physical collapse, she will not abdicate in favor of Charles.

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Given that she intends to remain firmly at the helm, where will she steer the monarchy now? The polls reveal some directions in which imperceptible change — or more — is needed. Asked whether the monarchy reflects today’s multifaith Britain, only 21% agree; 49% disagree. The palace already works to include more ethnic minorities and representatives of non-Christian faiths in the Queen’s events, but can be expected to do more of this. Another area the Queen can develop is what Frank Prochaska, a Yale historian, calls the “welfare monarchy”: the royal family assisting charities and groups that help the disadvantaged. British monarchs have been doing this since at least Victoria; the Queen is already patron of 620 voluntary organizations. The trick for the royals here is to avoid a patronizing air of noblesse oblige, as well as political controversy. But “they’re very good at it, and very good about doing it, but they don’t get credit for it,” says Worcester. More focus here will help the broader strategy of keeping the royals’ work in public view: “The more familiar people are with them, the more favorably they feel.”

And what, in the end, does she want as the legacy of her Elizabethan Age? In the way of monarchies, one part of the answer is already determined: Charles, then William. At this stage they appear to be a good bet. But, as the 1990s proved to the Windsors, human bloodlines can be as fickle as horses’. “Self-destruction is their biggest problem,” says Prochaska; and that, in the end, will depend on choices the future Kings themselves will make. As for the institution of the monarchy, the Queen’s track record reveals what she wants to leave behind: a Crown relentlessly pragmatic enough to stay popular.

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Prince Andrew says the legacy question is simply foreign to his mother. It is not in her nature, he says, to intellectualize, to consciously design what her reign will mean. She did not ask for the duties that fell to her, but she has done them, conscientiously, and she will keep doing them for as many days as she is given. “Today is reality. Yesterday is history. Her desire is not to change the future, but to be there, today. Today is what we’ve got.”

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