ON the day of her Coronation, June 2, 1953, the young Queen’s broadcast to the nation was introduced by probably the single most loyal subject she ever had.
Sir Winston Churchill had watched her grow up during the war years and admired the composure with which she gradually assumed more official duties as her father, for whom he had the highest regard, became ill.
His own health was beginning to fail him, but Churchill’s gift for giving voice to the mood of the British people was as acute as ever.
As Prime Minister in war and peace, his words had moved and inspired, but Churchill never spoke more from the heart than on that day.
The Queen, he said, was a “gleaming figure whom Providence has brought to us in times where the present is hard, and the future veiled”.
Churchill’s words resonate still.
The present of which he spoke was a Britain exhausted by war, broke, and with a crumbling empire. The future was unfolding against the threats of the Cold War.
Our own present is still hard, and the future against an increasingly perilous international backdrop remains veiled, just as then.
Something else resonates, too.
The gleaming figure of whom Churchill spoke remains undimmed, and, in her own undemonstrative way, inspiring, on the eve of yet another milestone in an extraordinary life and reign.
Next Thursday, the Queen will be 90 and millions will think of her, if only for a moment, with affection and admiration.
Partly it will be in wonder at her continuing presence in the life of the nation, and partly it will be in the hope that her reign continues for a good many years to come.
One reason for that is because rarely has the Royal Family enjoyed greater popularity with Britain’s people than it does currently.
But equally importantly, the Queen has come to embody Britain’s vision of what is best and most admirable about itself, values rooted in an earlier, more straightforward age that formed her outlook, when certainties over right and wrong were clear-cut.
When she finally leaves the stage, that past and the moral courage it represented is going to feel like it has been wrenched from our grasp.
Nobody else embodies the strength of character of the country that stood up to Hitler more potently than the Queen, nor exemplifies the commitment to duty and service that Britain displayed then.
As a nation, we constantly measure ourselves against the generation that fought the Second World War.
It is part of the national psyche, and even those born long after the fighting was over instinctively think of displaying the spirit of the Blitz when faced with adversity.
The Queen is an ever-present reminder of those values of pulling together and soldiering on, which, even in an age where individualism trumps everything else, collectively we still admire.
She remains the greatest unifying force in public life. Politicians come and go, as do fads and fashions. The 1980s can seem as remote to us now as the 1950s when she made her first broadcasts as Queen.
But the qualities she represents are timeless, and all the more to be treasured because of that.
Her reign has been marked by social upheavals, and the country is a very different place now compared to when she came to the throne.
The continuing pace of change can seem bewildering to many, but the seemingly ever-present, smiling Queen, continuing her round of engagements year in and year out is a reassuring reminder that underpinning it all are a set of values that we all embrace.
The example of fortitude and stoicism she has displayed for so long are underlined by an extraordinary statistic tucked away in the annual welter of figures produced by the Government.
More than 80 per cent of the British population has never known a time when she was not Queen.
Generation after generation has absorbed her example, and it is not fanciful to suggest that her presence has played a large part in embedding those values Britain holds so dear as deeply as they are.
Her birthday is an opportunity to give thanks for that, and also to reflect on what an astonishing reign hers continues to be.
She has no rival, in any country or at any period, as the most successful constitutional monarch to have ever lived, retaining the support of her subjects and being emblematic of stability and continuity.
Rarely has she put a foot wrong, and 11 prime ministers since her first, Churchill, have come to rely upon her judgment and wisdom.
The milestones have come and been left behind over the past few years as she has sailed serenely on – the Diamond Jubilee of 2012, then last year surpassing Victoria as our longest-reigning monarch.
There has been a theme to these moments, in which we have seen history unfolding before our eyes, and it is one which will also mark her 90th birthday.
And that is business as usual – joining the celebrations, giving thanks to her people for their good wishes, and then getting on with the round of engagements.
Even though the number of those engagements has been sensibly cut back in recent years – and the long-haul foreign tours given to the younger Royals – the Queen’s schedule remains hectic.
It is plain that she would not have it any other way. Duty is all. The values forged during wartime propel her forwards as she turns 90 as surely as they did when she came to the throne at 25.
She has spoken rarely of that sense of duty, but on one of the few occasions she did, in 1997, made it clear how much her people mean to her: “It is you, if I may now speak to all of you directly, who have seen us through and helped us to make our duty fun. We are deeply grateful to you, each and every one.”
The 90th birthday wish of millions next Thursday for many more happy returns will be testament that the nation is deeply grateful too.