This weekend, Britain will celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Bunting and cream cakes will turn neighbourhood roads into street parties and a flotilla of 1,000 boats will sail down the River Thames as a wave of nostalgia washes over the land.

Only one other British monarch has reached such a milestone. Elizabeth’s great-great grandmother, Victoria, was Queen for more than 63 years, from 1837 to 1901.

Although she was in frailer health than her great-great granddaughter, who at present shows no sign of slowing down, Victoria’s Jubilee was also an occasion for national – and imperial – celebration. Processing through the streets on her way to a service of thanksgiving, Victoria marked the event accompanied by her colonial premiers and regiments of Indian troops. “Up they came, more and more”, wrote a Daily Mail journalist, “an anthropological museum – a living gazetteer of the British Empire.”

Of course, the Britain of 2012 is very different to that of 1897. If, under Victoria, British rule extended to the far reaches of the globe, under Elizabeth II it has contracted, with the United Kingdom itself embracing devolution.

Although Elizabeth remains Queen of the Commonwealth, the country over which she rules now sees itself – if sometimes reluctantly – as part of the European community of nations. It is now not imperial troops, but immigrants from the Caribbean, South Asia and Africa who fill the streets of London.

But for all these differences, the reigns of Elizabeth II and Victoria share much in common.

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