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Her Majesty has been unifying the United Kingdom for 70 years

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Britain still has a monarchy in the 21st century. Despite the royal family's many scandals, the crown has retained the support of a majority of Britons. Some of that support has been on display in recent days as tens of thousands have turned out to celebrate Queen Elizabeth's seven decades on the throne. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on the monarchy's enduring appeal from St Paul's Cathedral in London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: I'm outside of St Paul's, and the royal family is just pulling up. And people are lining the sidewalks. It must be six or seven deep. Nobody can move. Some people are waving union flags. There's lots of people taking video.

STEPHEN LANE: An occasion like today acts as some form of mythical unification.

LANGFITT: Stephen Lane (ph) was standing on the sidewalk yesterday as the royal family arrived for a service to give thanks for the queen's reign.

LANE: I mean, the monarchy is a stabilizing, a unifying - and just brings joy to the vast majority of the population.

LANGFITT: People here say the queen, now 96, sort of serves as the nation's grandmother, providing wisdom and support. Lane cites a speech she made during the COVID lockdown, when she urged people to stay at home to save lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

QUEEN ELIZABETH II: While we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.

LANGFITT: Lane found those lines comforting, and he says the queen was right.

LANE: When the queen addressed the country and said, look, there will be a better day tomorrow, and here we are at a better day tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LANGFITT: Danielle Wallace (ph), a pharmacist, traveled across the water from Belfast for this week's celebrations. She recalled watching the queen sitting on her own in a pew last year during the funeral of her husband, Prince Philip. The queen wore a black mask and followed the country's COVID rules while some government staff, even Prime Minister Boris Johnson, broke them.

DANIELLE WALLACE: I just think the sacrifices that she made during what was the worst time that I've ever seen, her having to mourn her husband alone, that image will just - that'll never leave, the sacrifice that she made that day, when so many other people didn't. It just shows the character that she has.

LANGFITT: Robert Lacey is a biographer of the queen. He says some Britons are drawn to the monarchy because they want to believe in something.

ROBERT LACEY: At a time when the government is mired, as it so often seems to be, in deceit and uncertainty, then people actually yearn the more to respect the monarchy and overlook its flaws or peccadilloes or shortcomings.

LANGFITT: And those flaws have been front and center in recent years. They include the queen's second son, Prince Andrew, settling a civil suit in February on allegations of sexual assault. Then there was the drama surrounding the departure of the queen's grandson, Prince Harry, and his wife Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, who now live in California. But the scandal and turmoil don't seem to taint the queen. Four in five Britons still have a favorable opinion of her, according to a recent poll. David McClure, a royal analyst, says part of the appeal of the queen is her mystique.

DAVID MCCLURE: I think if we knew really a lot about the queen, we wouldn't be so fascinated by her.

LANGFITT: McClure says some Britons look at the queen as they would a Rorschach test.

MCCLURE: They don't really know what she's like. But everyone projects onto the queen what they want to see, what you'd like the nation to be.

LANGFITT: Not everyone in Britain likes the monarchy. Over the past decade, support for the institution has dropped 13 points to 60%, according to tracking polls by YouGov, the market research firm. Graham Smith runs Republic, an anti-monarchy group here. He sees the royal family as part of the United Kingdom's nostalgia machine.

GRAHAM SMITH: It is part of a seam in our culture that is unhealthily backward-looking. There are people that hark back to a fictional golden era, which is usually, you know, 1950s or whatever, you know? And there's this notion that it's all queen, country, empire, we, you know, just defeated the bad guys and aren't we great? It's a lot of nonsense.

LANGFITT: Nor does Smith say it makes sense to have a public position handed down along family lines.

SMITH: No one has a guaranteed God-given right to be in public office. And the monarchy says, well, actually, hang on a minute; this family has that right for no reason other than they're related to people that had it before. So that's fundamentally undemocratic.

LANGFITT: Smith says the solution is for Britons to elect their head of state. He says the queen's passing, whenever it comes, will provide an opportunity for people to consider the future of the monarchy. And he hopes more will conclude its time has passed. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, St Paul's Cathedral. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.