A Tale of Two Britains: Fairy Tale vs. Reality

On left: An official engagement portrait of Prince William and Kate Middleton.; Right: A protestor tries to smash the window of a bank during a protest of government cuts in London on March 26, 2011. Uppa-Zuma (left); Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

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. Today, mining, shipbuilding, and textiles have almost vanished. What survives of the rest is mainly in the hands of foreign companies. Never mind the royal yacht; which of us in 1981 could have imagined that every British chocolate bar would be made by firms run from Switzerland and the U.S.; that London’s water supply would be owned in Germany and its electricity in France; that the future of Britain’s steel mills would hang by threads attached to headquarters in Mumbai and Bangkok?

It would be a mistake, however, to paint 1981 as a golden age. The bells rang out, the guns saluted, and Diana rode to her nuptials in a glass carriage, but the celebration came as a relief and a distraction to a country beleaguered by social division and unrest. In Northern Ireland that summer, IRA prisoners were dying on hunger strike. Riots broke out between young blacks and the police and spread through the rundown sections of English cities—Brixton in London, Toxteth in Liverpool. Unemployment was on its way up, and within 15 months ran at a postwar record of 12.9 percent, never to get below 11 percent until 1987. Thatcher was then deeply unpopular, saved the next year only by victory in the Falklands. By 1983 so much of the manufacturing base had disappeared that Britain became, for the first time, a net importer of goods.

The similarities between then and now are, in some cases, remarkably exact; 2.5 million people will be on the dole when William marries Kate, the same number as when Charles married Diana, and just as then the figure is heading north. But the portents today are more ominous. Oil from the North Sea began to make a significant contribution to the economy in the ’80s—by the middle of the decade it was providing a 10th of tax revenue and helping to fund relatively handsome welfare payments. Then in the ’90s, following Thatcher’s deregulation of finance, London grew to rival New York as the world’s leading countinghouse and in some aspects to outpace it. But oil is finite and so is credit. Today, North Sea oil is well past peak production. And while London’s banks and finance houses may recover some glitter, few imagine that in the future they’ll hold the certain key to national prosperity when so much public money has been devoted to saving them.

Which leaves us with that old-fashioned idea, ignored by two generations of British politicians, that the economy should be rebalanced toward manufactured exports. The chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, closed his budget speech last month by saying, “We want the words ‘made in Britain,’ ‘created in Britain,’ ‘designed in Britain,’ ‘invented in Britain’ to drive our nation forward. A Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers.” Taxes on corporations are to be cut and a few low-tax “enterprise zones” and apprenticeship schemes created, but beyond that and Osborne’s clunky rhetoric, there’s nothing that resembles a plan. The government’s hopes are pinned instead to the simple belief that when the public sector shrinks, private enterprise will grow to “take up the slack.” In the deindustrialized zones of the north, where the public sector provides 40 percent of the jobs, the slack will at least be in good supply.

But the most important difference between now and 1981 isn’t so much economic as social. Remembering the crowds who cheered the procession, I think of the life experiences of those individuals—men who’d fought in the war, women who’d lived through rationing, all them shaped by habits of deference and obligation and handing them down to their children. Defining the “national character” may be a fool’s game, but it’s safe to say that since then, behavior in Britain has changed. People are shriller, angrier, and respect institutions much less; civility earns far fewer points, and stoicism, excepting that shown by limbless soldier home from Afghanistan, hardly any points at all.

The risk of civil disorder may be exaggerated. Still, we fear it. When Charles and Camilla had their car set on by protesters in London last December, the most important result was the photograph of the shocked couple inside it. All composure had gone. The monarchy is used to noisy demonstrations by republicans in Australia. An attack by an English mob, on the other hand, hasn’t been suffered by British royalty since the rude ferments of the 18th century. With the photograph came the tremor of change, felt again in late March when about 150 young people variously described as thugs, yobs, and anarchists were arrested in London’s West End in a violent postscript to an otherwise peaceful demonstration against public cuts attended by 250,000. Many of the arrested wore black masks. The window of a Porsche showroom was shattered, the Ritz had paint thrown at it, and Fortnum & Mason was occupied by a sit-in (with little damage done; the stacks of Earl Grey tea and Gentleman’s Relish survived intact).

Anxious to prevent similar scenes at the royal wedding, the Metropolitan Police have promised that they’ll be on guard against every threat “from terrorism downwards.” As a recent piece in the Financial Times warns: “It is rash to assume that the British character contains something so uniquely stoical that it will take the pain and advance with a stiff upper lip to the glorious uplands of social peace, and a budget close to balance, by the next election in 2015.” We may not, in other words, be so different from Greece. We may need to get used to mobs.

Jack is a British journalist and author of The Country Formerly Known as Great Britain.