As she approaches her Diamond Jubilee, in 2012, Queen Elizabeth II has a personal approval rating as measured by opinion polls regularly topping 80 per cent. More importantly perhaps, she nears the 60th anniversary of her reign having resurrected an institution which 15 years ago looked distinctly mortal. Since the Golden Jubilee of 2002, when three million people attended the London celebrations, the Queen has moved on to another level in public esteem: the troubles of the Nineties behind her, she is accepted by all generations as the nation's matriarch.
Despite this, in her role as what the Victorian historian Walter Bagehot termed the "dignified part" of the constitution, the Queen remains under-appreciated. By virtue of her apparent absence from the political scene, she appears to many of her subjects — the majority of whom have known no other monarch — to have no political function. This has been compounded over the past four decades by the general dilution of knowledge about the country's history. So it is only by accident that people become aware of her constitutional duties — when it is revealed to them, for example, in of all things, a feature film (the Oscar-winning The Queen) or, as has just happened, when her name and role is extensively invoked after an election campaign which produced an inconclusive result.
The Queen, in our unwritten constitution, has enormous theoretical powers by way of the Royal Prerogative. In reality, these powers are exercised by the prime minister. A monarch has not withheld Royal Assent to a government Bill since Queen Anne and William IV was the last King to dismiss a PM. The monarch's constitutional position was best summed up by Bagehot, who said he or she enjoyed "the right to be consulted, the right to encourage and the right to warn".
And in this sentence lies the Queen's great strength. All PMs have taken seriously their weekly meetings with the sovereign. As Margaret Thatcher — with whom Elizabeth's relations were said to be cool — wrote in her memoirs: "Anyone who imagines that [these meetings] are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience." This experience and her knowledge of constitutional, political and social issues can only be of immeasurable help to new prime ministers, especially as they are more and more likely to be only half her age.