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It's hard to think of a Britain without Queen Elizabeth II. What's her legacy?


For now, we're going to turn to Tracy Borman - she is a royal historian - with a long look at the queen's life and legacy.

Tracy, thanks for being with us.

TRACY BORMAN: It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: It's just remarkable to think that this woman, Queen Elizabeth, was just 25 years old when she took the throne. And - I mean, it was such an uncertain period of post-war recovery in the country. How did she seek to distinguish herself from not just her father but her other predecessors?

BORMAN: Yes. You're right. What a moment for her to have become queen, and at such a young age, in fact, the same age as the first Elizabeth Queen of England. And it's extraordinary how different attitudes were then. She immediately faced, you know, whole-scale prejudice about the fact that she was a woman, and people just didn't think she was capable of fulfilling this role of queen. And yet she defied all expectations. And I think it was her constancy and sense of duty from the beginning that really set her on the right path. They may not be the most glamorous of qualities for a monarch. We're not talking about high drama here. But I think it's the very lack of drama that defined her reign and that was the secret of her success.

MARTIN: People keep using the word decent to describe her...


MARTIN: ...Such a sense of decency, which is sort of an interesting word.

BORMAN: Exactly. And it was said very early in her reign that - by the prime minister - that she loves duty, and she means to be queen. And, you know, that was a very accurate remark. And she was also described as a child as being fundamentally sensible and well-behaved. And I think that really applied throughout her long life.

MARTIN: The role of monarch is not a political job, but she performed it alongside political people - a long list of prime ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill. How significant...


MARTIN: ...Were those personal relationships to Britain's trajectory?

BORMAN: They were hugely significant, and, of course, as of two days ago, she broke that record - or, three days ago, rather - she broke the record of, you know, greeting the most prime ministers - 15 prime ministers during her long reign. But I think from the beginning, the queen understood and abided by her constitutional role. We must remember that in a sense, the monarch in Britain has less power politically than their subjects because their subjects can vote in a government, whereas the monarch can only acknowledge its arrival. And we certainly saw the queen abiding by that constitutional role. But it's a - it's been a pivotal role as well, especially given her long experience. She's played a really important role in advising her prime ministers and her governments.

MARTIN: She saw a lot of change, though, in the United Kingdom - I mean, the the decline of the empire, the decline of Britain as a global power...

BORMAN: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: ...Brexit, all this uncertainty over Scotland and Northern Ireland. How did those issues complicate her legacy?

BORMAN: Well, she did oversee a huge amount of change. But - and I think there's always a balance to be struck for any monarch between keeping up with the times, but upholding tradition because tradition does lie at the heart of the British monarchy. It was said that an ideal monarch needed to be always changing, always the same. And I do think that the queen got it absolutely right. She did, you know, revolutionize some aspects of the monarchy. And notably, I would say her greatest legacy was in finally introducing equality into the succession so that women have equal precedence with men when it comes to inheriting the throne. But, of course, she was a bastion of tradition as well.

MARTIN: You know, people, though, have pointed to relics of the past. The OBE is this honor that is bestowed upon British subjects who are notable for their public service. And the E stands for Empire. And that's become kind of a thing right now, people saying...


MARTIN: ...You know, she was modern, perhaps, in some ways but was representative of a part of British history that many people are not proud of.

BORMAN: No, absolutely. But some of the the titles - perhaps they have become anachronistic. But I think the queen was very, very good at adapting the monarchy to suit the times. And I think that in the future we will see even more of that. There is talk of the new King Charles being defender of faiths, plural, not just defender of the faith, as the monarch has been for 500 years. But I think the queen just absolutely hit the right note throughout her reign.

MARTIN: There were a lot of personal problems in the royal family itself - the trauma of the death of Princess Diana, Prince Andrew's ties to the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Prince Harry and Meghan choosing to leave their royal duties.


MARTIN: How will her legacy in those moments be remembered?

BORMAN: Well, I think there's a huge amount to learn from the queen's reaction to those moments. And scandal really defined her reign from the beginning. Her sister, Princess Margaret's affair with Peter Townsend, really set the tone for some of the greatest crises of her reign. She always upheld the privacy of her position, and I think she judged that absolutely correctly - 'cause in this age that's obsessed with overnight celebrities and, you know, global communication, I think the queen upheld that dignity and was this constant, unswerving pressure - sorry - presence, even when everything was falling apart, you know, around her. She was there. She was constant, a really steady hand.

MARTIN: Tracy Borman, a historian whose book "Crown & Sceptre" chronicles the British monarchy.

Thank you so much for joining us this morning for your perspective.

BORMAN: It's been a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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