Time for a Royal Wedding.While England Is Royally Screwed

Article excerpt

Byline: Ian Jack

A tale of two Britains.

Nearly a third of the world's population will watch Prince William marry Kate Middleton in Westminster -Abbey on April 29, or so reports in the British press predicting a television audience of more than 2 billion would have us believe. The souvenir tea towels have been printed, the mugs glazed, and a national holiday declared. For a whole day, Britain will play the game the world loves us for: royal Lilliput.

Could this be the biggest role left to us? "Britain no longer exists. It is a trace of what it used to be," Muammar Gaddafi said recently in one of his rants, and though this was in one way a speech too soon (a few of the missiles that hit Libya were British), there are many in Britain who would forgive the colonel his analysis. The country is facing the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s. Government budgets have been slashed in every direction. This year hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers will get the sack, while inflation, tax increases, and a steep reduction in welfare benefits will eat into the household incomes of nearly everyone else. A whole range of public institutions, from military airfields to public libraries, are closing or being sold off. What remains of the British Navy has been deprived of its last aircraft carrier (the HMS Ark Royal, now for sale on the Ministry of Defence's version of eBay).

The country is used to the idea of national decline: "declinism" became a feature of British historical study many years ago--the U.S. is just now catching up. Public fears over the nation's capability date back to at least the Boer War. Today, however, the country is filled with a sense of foreboding that I can't remember paralleled in my lifetime. Two decades, the 1970s and '80s, are often invoked as specters. The political right, which includes the coalition government, invokes an era of labor strikes ending with an IMF bailout when it says "we mustn't go back to the '70s." The left counters with a warning against the '80s, when Margaret Thatcher remade Britain as a largely postindustrial society, privatizing swaths of the economy, abolishing union power, and wiping out manufacturing. But the events of neither decade threatened Britain's idea of itself so completely as the debt exposed by the banking crash and the present government's policy to restore economic confidence by slashing public programs.

Thirty years ago, when the couple who became Prince William's parents got married, Britain was a country that hadn't changed all that much since the queen's coronation in 1953. I covered the wedding as a reporter. Crowds lined the royal route all the way from Buckingham Palace to St. Paul's--some families had been in place for days--and they were unironic in their patriotism (and, for a city with substantial ethnic minorities, remarkably white). Even at the time, I noted this as an anachronism--they were the kind of people celebrated in postwar Ealing comedies and films about the Blitz: cheerful, inclined to sing beery tunes and wear paper hats, they'd emerged from ordinary suburbs and towns to make this their big day out. Looking back, what's more surprising is the many other things we mistook as -everyday and permanent. It didn't seem at all odd, for example, that Charles and Diana should set off on their honeymoon in a royal train; or that they should continue their honeymoon on the royal yacht Britannia, crewed by 220 seamen and 20 officers as it crisscrossed the Mediterranean with the couple as its only cargo.

That grandeur died with the new century. The royal yacht has become a museum; the royal train is hardly ever used. Elsewhere, in the realm of real life, the changes are much more significant. When Charles married Diana, British coal pits still employed 250,000 miners; British shipyards still launched ships; British factories still made steel, cars, confectionery, clothes, and beer. …