Academic journal article Antipodes

Marketing the Modern Empire: Elizabeth II and the 1953-1954 World Tour

Academic journal article Antipodes

Marketing the Modern Empire: Elizabeth II and the 1953-1954 World Tour

Article excerpt

Britons never conquered Australia. They were in the van of discovery, they settled it, explored it.[. . .] Slowly it conquered them, and they became Australians. [. . .] Only now has Australia been subdued. In two [. . .] months as a cherished guest, the queen aroused for herself ana her ancient office such a tumult of approval as rang around the earth. Australia succumbed wholeheartedly to its young Queen. Not men, not time nor power wiH ever dislodge her from her conquest.

- Australia News and Information Bureau 103.

IN THE YEARS IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING WWII, GREAT BRITAIN faced something of an identity crisis. It could no longer claim to be the center of the world's greatest empire, as said empire was indisputably in steep decline, stripped - or divested - of many of its largest and most valuable colonies and moving rapidly towards the almost complete decolonization of the 1960s. Economically, too, Britain was severely weakened: the war had left it victorious, but battlescarred and relatively impoverished. And finally, at a cultural level, Britain's preeminence was threatened: popular culture from the United States was taking hold of the hearts (and pocketbooks) of many of the former empire's future decision makers, its teenagers.

Britain had been seen through the war by powerful leaders - not only in Whitehall and on the battlefield, but in Buckingham Palace, as well. There, George VI - the man who had brought the country back from the abdication crisis a decade before - maintained a stiff upper lip, kept his family in London during the Blitz, and let his elder daughter perform military service alongside her peers [see Fig. I]. A quiet symbol of old-fashioned virtues, and a manifestation of endurance in the face of adversity, George VI resonated with the masses despite their obvious differences in class position. In many ways, though, the death of the King in 1952 provided a signal opportunity for the arrival of a new and improved figurehead, one better suited for the post-imperial age: George's daughter, Elizabeth II. Elizabeth took die throne amidst an extended blast of publicity geared towards delivering one important message: that die new Queen was to usher in a New Elizabethan Age - a time of triumph and glory for Britain, and for all who were associated with her.

It is common to dismiss the British monarchy as irrelevant in this day and age. We have become accustomed to drawing a line between serious affairs of state and a nation's purely ceremonial trappings, and it is impossible to deny that the formal political power of the throne has been waning for centuries. Nonetheless, the symbolic resonance of the Royal Family cannot be lost on anyone who witnessed the multivalent public response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997. Although the doings of the Royals may now come to our attention chiefly as we stand in line at the grocery store, it would be a mistake to conclude, as a result, that they can't - and don't - have significant cultural, and even political, effects. Turn the calendar back 50 years and the figure at the forefront of national and worldwide consciousness was the young Elizabeth. It was this very ubiquity - a ubiquity all the more powerful due to her perceived political neutrality - that permitted the young Queen to serve as the iconographie focal point of British identity. In this essay I will outline the nature of that iconography, as well as the manner it was circulated throughout the world in text and images. My goal is to show the ways that carefully articulated concepts of nation and gender combined at mid-century to set forth a prescription for Britishness on a worldwide stage and offered both Britons and former colonials a compelling vision of a post-imperial future.

My archive for this essay takes the form of a collection of souvenir books, pamphlets, and magazine issues devoted to the early life of Elizabeth II; my library of these is quite large, and ever-growing, yet it seems unlikely ever to be complete, as I'm continually discovering new examples. …

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