AUSTERITY BRITAIN AND ROYAL CIRCUSES. Funerals, Coronations and Weddings, 1935 – 2011

Next week, on March 23rd, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne will wield his axe to administer the £81bn of cuts the government says are necessary in order to deal with the deficit. There is still a sense of unreality about what lies in store for those who will be hit hardest. The mass-circulation newspapers convey little or nothing of the severe austerity that is about to be imposed. The general mood still seems to be one of denial. But that is unlikely to last long once reality kicks in. April will be the first of many hard months – and years – to come. But the government must be hoping that April will bring some welcome distracting sunshine in the form of a much hyped, romantic royal wedding. Second in line to the throne, Prince William, will wed his photogenic fiancée Kate Middleton on April 29th. We are assured by the tabloids that this is an event eagerly awaited by the whole nation, and one which will attract to our shores multitudes of tourists eager to share with us our joy, and experience at first hand the colour and pageantry for which British state occasions such as this are world renowned. Less widely reported is the fact that the numbers of people opting to take extended Easter breaks abroad this year due to the additional public holiday granted for the wedding, has shot up by between 30% and 50%.

Such occasions are hardly conducive to reflections on their antecedents, or for that matter, on anything much beyond the razzmatazz of the moment. For the record, we may recall that the last such event in Britain, the wedding of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer in July 1981, received the full-on treatment of a state occasion. 3,500 guests were present at the ceremony in St. Paul’s Cathedral and it was watched by 750 million world-wide. The Times described the wedding as a “Day of Romance in a Grey World”, and the description didn’t apply to the weather, which was fine. It would perhaps be unkind to wish the son of Charles and Diana the “happy ever after” life that his parents enjoyed for him and his bride, but it is not inappropriate to caution the happy couple that the prognosis for the longevity of royal matches in recent times is not good.

But it is more interesting to pick up the point about the “grey world”. The wedding of Charles and Diana took place two years after the election of Margaret Thatcher. Unemployment in Britain had remained relatively low from 1945 until the late 1970s. Then, in the manufacturing recession of 1981, due partly to the deflationary impact of strict monetary policy, it rose rapidly to unprecedented levels. From 1.5 million in 1979 it had reached 3 million by 1981, at the time of the wedding. This is not to suggest of course that the nuptials were timed to distract public attention from the dire economic situation, but it was nevertheless a convenient coincidental happenstance. Interesting to note also is that Thatcher’s popularity ratings in 1980 and 1981 were at an all-time low, at 23%. It was only the Falklands War of 1982 that restored her popularity and enabled her to go on to win the 1983 election.

Devotees of British cinema will not have failed to notice the phenomenal success at the box office of The King’s Speech, which, to critical acclaim, purports to relate the story of the late George VI’s struggle to overcome a stammer which seriously inhibited him from performing his public duties. Leaving aside the questions raised about the film’s historical accuracy in its depiction of the king as an admirer of Churchill and an opponent of appeasement, it continues the theme started earlier by another popular movie, The Queen. This film was widely regarded as an attempt to restore public affection for Elizabeth II, which had suffered badly at the time of Diana’s death in 1997. These films have appealed to audiences far beyond the ranks of devoted monarchists.

Although republicanism does not have a wide following in Britain, public affection for the monarchy’s present representatives has over recent years been less than fulsome. The shenanigans of the current Duke of York (the queen’s younger son and, like Charles, a divorcee) who, as Britain’s special envoy for trade, has consorted with a paedophile procurer of prostitutes and various unsavoury dictators, has not exactly enhanced the royal reputation for probity and sound judgment. A few years ago William’s brother, Prince Harry, was photographed at an upper-crust fancy dress ball dressed in a Nazi uniform, complete with swastika armband. This could be put down to youthful naivety, but it still leaves something to be desired in terms of intelligence and sensitivity.

The British power elite have a vested interest in retaining public support for the monarchy. Its mystique has to be kept alive. Deference to its antiquated modes and manners has to be maintained because if the institution itself should be called into question the implications for the British state would be very serious. So what are presented as important “events” in the “unending saga” of the monarchy have to be staged with all the pomp and pageantry they are deemed to deserve. Coronations, weddings, funerals, jubilees, are invested with a mystique deliberately intended to encourage wonder and admiration and the suspension of disbelief.

If we exclude the first world war and its immediate aftermath, prior to the financial collapse of 2008 and the age of austerity which is just beginning, the decades of the twentieth century marked by economic crisis, unemployment, war and austerity were the 1930s, the 1940s and early 1950s. They were also the years of elaborately staged royal “events”. It’s worth running through them:

1935. 4th May. At the height of the Depression in Britain with 3 million unemployed and Mosley’s fascists on the march, Hitler in power in Germany and Mussolini about to invade Abyssinia, Britain celebrated the silver jubilee of George V, King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India. These were the years of dole queues and hunger marches. Jubilee celebrations were held up and down the country.

1936. January 20th. Funeral of George V at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, after lying-in-state in London.

1936. Accession to the throne of Edward VIII, King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India. An admirer of Hitler, he abdicated in December 1936 after causing a constitutional crisis by announcing his intention of marrying a ‘commoner’ – the American socialite, and divorcee, Wallis Simpson. The crisis embroiling the monarch and the government lasted throughout the year.

1937. May 12th. Coronation of George VI, King of the United Kingdom and Emperor of India. The event was a grand spectacle, filmed for posterity in gaudy early Technicolor with an unctuously sycophantic commentary. Neville Chamberlain became prime minister the same month. In September 1938 he concluded the Munich Agreement with Hitler which led to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and paved the way for world war two. This was the high point of appeasement. On his return from Munich and before he had sought the agreement parliamentary endorsement for the treaty, George VI and his wife Elizabeth invited Chamberlain to appear with them on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to receive the adulation of his admirers. This was a highly unusual and unconstitutional step, which has been described by historian John Grigg as “the most unconstitutional act by a British sovereign in the present century.”

1937 was also the centenary of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne, the occasion for a jingoistic colour movie “Queen Victoria”starring Anna Neagle, which celebrated “sixty glorious years” of queen and empire.

1947.November 20th. The Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth to the Duke of Edinburgh at Westminster abbey. The depth of winter in one of the bleakest years of post-war austerity was brightened by the royal wedding of the 21 year old princess to Philip Mountbatten.

1952. George VI died of lung cancer on 6th February. The funeral took place on 15th February. Thousands lined the streets of London to watch the funeral cortege pass on its way to Windsor.

1953. June 2nd. Coronation of Elizabeth II. The official commentary on this occasion surpassed in nauseating unction even the excesses of the coronation of George VI. 8.000 guests attended the ceremony in Westminster Abbey. Three million were said to have lined the streets of London, many having camped out overnight in the rain. A colour documentary was made for the cinemas. 20 million viewers watched the proceedings on TV, crowding into neighbours’ houses as television ownership was still limited. According to the commentary, the people were said to have “let themselves go in an outpouring of spontaneous emotion.” “The monarchy”, it was claimed, was “enshrined in the hearts of the people.”

In 1977 the queen celebrated her golden jubilee. In June 2012 there will be more celebrations on the occasion of her diamond jubilee. Then she will have been on the throne for almost as long as Victoria. So, Austerity Britain in 2011 and 2012 will be distracted from the doldrums by captivating spectacles. In April of this year we will be treated to a sparkling wedding of young royal celebrities. In 2012 the Diamond Jubilee in June will be followed by the Olympic Games in July and August. Perhaps the realities of wage-cuts, redundancies, unemployment, destruction of local services, demolition of the NHS, big bankers’ bonuses and growing inequality may all be star-dusted away. Unlikely. Things are not quite as they used to be and there are growing signs that the old monarchical magic is no longer working as it used to.

But there are some republicans who once thought differently who have now become ftconverts to the monarchy. One such is Peter Mandelson – now Lord Mandelson. In 1981, he and some fellow Labour party friends went to   Boulogne in France in order to spend the day of the royal wedding in a republic. He now looks forward to the Diamond Jubilee as “a truly historic occasion which will allow the people to show their pride and affection for the Queen.”