'Many happy returns' sounds inappropriate; but one can still say, 'Thank you and God bless'

In his biography of the Queen, who is 90 today, former government minister Lord Hurd has described her as Elizabeth “the Steadfast”.

It is a good title. People talk about her famed sense of duty, which she inherited from her father; but to call her “Elizabeth the Dutiful” would be to damn with dull praise.

It suggests a certain passive obedience. “I was only doing my duty” also has slightly sinister connotations. But “steadfast” has an altogether more attractive ring to it, implying a conscious decision to be faithful to a vow – as indeed, Elizabeth has.

It also implies loyalty, dedication and self-sacrifice; and these too have been characteristics of the Queen. Unlike some other European monarchs who have abdicated, she takes her Coronation oath very seriously; she will never walk away from the job.

By all accounts, she is modest, never confusing her public role and official status with her private sense of who she is. She has also been a lifelong and serious Christian; this has always come across most forcibly in her Christmas Speech, a personal message from the monarch to her people, not written as part of her constitutional role.

A constitutional monarchy is itself a brilliant device: it unites tradition, pageantry, potent symbolism, a figurehead who is above the grubby business of politics and a focus of unity for the whole country. We are very fortunate in our Queen.

It has been reported that she has two regrets about her reign: that she didn’t instantly visit Aberfan after the colliery tragedy of 1966 (even though her hesitation was because she did not want to deflect attention from the grief of the bereaved families); and that she delayed returning to London after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In this instance she put her grandmotherly role before the country. But to have put your foot wrong only twice in an exceptionally long reign is itself an extraordinary achievement.

As readers will note, I am a monarchist. I have also been reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s weighty book, The Romanovs, 1613-1918, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and reflecting on the difference between the succession of rigid autocrats, ruffians and weaklings among the Russian tsars and our own, rather less colourful, royalty during these last three centuries.

For instance, Peter the Great had his own son tortured to death. When he stayed in London in 1698, in the diarist, John Evelyn’s house, he used the paintings for target practice, the furniture for firewood and the curtains for lavatory paper. Apparently, the favourite occupation of the Empress Anna, 1730-40, was “dwarf-tossing.” Catherine the Great, 1762-96, was implicated in the murder of her husband, Peter II. Nicholas I, 1825-55, began the characteristically Russian institution of the secret police.

There were five serious assassination attempts on the life of Alexander II until he was successfully murdered in 1881; and so on, down to the last tsar, Nicholas II, executed by the Bolsheviks, whom Sebag Montefiore describes as obstinate, weak, immature and of mediocre intelligence.

He only understood one thing; that he had to be an autocratic ruler like his ancestors. He once fatuously explained that he conceived of Russia “as a landed estate of which the proprietor is the tsar, the administrator is the nobility and the workers are the peasantry.” Even if he had been the absolute ruler of the Balmoral estate alone, he would have made a mess of it.

Elizabeth II is everything the Romanovs were not: frugal in her personal habits; happily married and without a whiff of scandal attached to her name; dignified and gracious, even when she has to welcome despots and dictators from other countries; aware that she has to accept the inevitable changes in society; and according to her family, a woman of great wisdom and experience.

To greet someone who is 90 with “Many happy returns” sounds inappropriate; but one can still say, “Thank you and God bless.”