A multitude of Britains under one queen
The Britain that 25-year-old Elizabeth inherited when her father George VI. died on February 6, 1952 was strikingly different from the Britain celebrating its platinum jubilee – not so much “a foreign land” in LP Hartley’s wistful expression, but “a continent far, far away” (and one usually referred to as ” England” as if the regional appendages didn’t matter). The country was dominated by a tiny ‘establishment’ – a collection of mixed-marriage families who controlled the Conservative Party (which held power uninterruptedly from 1951 to 1964), Oxbridge, the public schools, the church, the professional professions and the armed forces mastered. Although the queen was at the heart of the establishment, she was also a rare woman in a decidedly homosocial world.
Britain still considered itself an empire, although George VI was in fact the last British king to hold the formal title of “Emperor”. His daughter’s coronation oath was purposely vague about which lands she ruled, declaring her “Queen of this realm and all her other realms and territories,” an vagueness that prompted young Tory MP Enoch Powell to deliver an agonized speech lower house It continued to regard itself as a great power. The Coronation Naval Review at Spithead in June 1953 showed more than 300 ships, including representatives from the USA, USSR and France, led by the battleship HMS Vanguard. Not to be outdone, the Royal Air Force later responded with an overhead display of 600 aircraft, including three V-bomber prototypes.
But this establishment-dominated and imperialist country was also, at heart, a white working-class country. About 80% of the population worked in manual trades – coal mining and steel making were still big industries – with distinctive clothing (cloth hats for men) and branded on the tongue with distinct local accents. George Orwell’s famous description of his countrymen as ‘gentle’ – by which he meant socially conservative and instinctively law-abiding – still held true. In 1955, anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer reported that the English were “gentle, polite and orderly … you hardly ever see a fight in a bar (a not uncommon spectacle in the rest of Europe or the US) … football people are as orderly as a town hall meeting.” .
This public respectability was reinforced by the power of the establishment, usually by tacit agreement but sometimes by legal force. The BBC did not broadcast anything “disparaging of political institutions” and took particular care to ban imitations of leading public figures. Judges ordered the destruction of more than 1,500 “obscene” novels, including Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857). During the “Lady Chatterley Trial,” when Penguin Books was indicted for publishing DH Lawrence’s rather horrific corset ripper, the prosecutor’s council asked the jury if it was a book “that you… would wish your wife or yours read servant”.
The country the queen inherited was too much of a balancing act to remain as it was: elitist but proletarian, gentle but arrogant, grand but also ephemeral. But it was not only changed by the logic of these contradictions, but also by four powerful forces.
The first was The Rise of Meritocracy, the title of a 1958 book by Michael Young. The ‘rise’ has continued since the introduction of open competition in the civil service and at Oxbridge Colleges in the mid-19th century. as Young’s report made clear. But so far, “climbing the ladder” had meant recruiting a few exceptional kids into the establishment. What Young’s book heralded was the conquest of the establishment by meritocracy. The Conservative Party was led by two consecutive high school students: Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. Establishment types like Harold Macmillan and Quintin Hogg were derided into insignificance by a new generation of satirists like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Women poured into elite jobs and, somewhat more slowly, into the upper echelons of the economy. Being “self-made” went from being a mark of shame to the highest compliment. Thatcher’s government added to the high school clerks and academics entrepreneurs as solvents of the old society of rank and rank.
The second factor was the rise of permissive society, a term coined by flamboyant and gay Tory MP Norman St John Stevas. The government began to back out of the business of micromanaging morals even before it got out of the business of micromanaging the economy, led by a Labor Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, but also hailed by Liberal Conservatives. “Intercourse began in 1963,” Philip Larkin famously said, two years after the birth of the pill. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967. The BBC used not only satire but also a more aggressive interview style and ended up treating politicians not so much as grandees but as criminals in the dock. Children whose births were registered to only one parent increased from 4% in the 1960s to 24% in the 1990s.
The third is harder to name: call it deindustrialization if you’re on the left, “the rise of entrepreneurial society” if you’re on the right, “creating a post-industrial society” if you’re a technocrat. Britain underwent arguably the greatest economic transformation of any country in Western Europe during the Queen’s reign. Gone are the big industrial blocs along with the unions that represented or misrepresented them throughout the 1970s. In their place is a service economy headed by some of the world’s highest-paid knowledge workers, but also by an army of casual workers working just-in-time. This economic revolution ended the bitter industrial dispute of the late 1970s. But it also provided the fuel for new disputes – the alienation of the former industrial North manifested in Brexit and a Scottish independence movement that could still succeed in dividing the Queen’s realm.
Britain’s anguish over which economic model to adopt is matched only by its anguish over relations with the rest of the world. The country has been fundamentally changed by globalization. In the 1980s, the City of London regained its Victorian status as a global financial center, although this time sharing a position with New York. The number of foreign-born workers doubled to 3.8 million between 1997 and 2007, the largest influx of immigrants in British history. For all their differences of opinion, Tony Blair and Boris Johnson both stood for ‘Global Britain’.
But what kind of globalization did people actually want?
Some thought that the only way Britain could go further was to join what was then the European Economic Community, or play a larger role in the European Union after it joined. “Europe today is the only way through which Britain … can maintain its historic role as a global player,” Blair said. Others said it must revitalize the old Commonwealth in the guise of a new Anglosphere. Still others declared that it should step away from formal ties and play the role of a buccaneering power in a world of vast global blocs, bound to no one but free to trade anywhere.
The result was a confused policy: first joining the EEC on the (deliberately) erroneous claim that it was nothing more than a common market, and then, after the most divisive debate of the Queen’s reign, exiting without bothering to make it clear the details of our relationship with the EU, let alone with the rest of the world. Suffice it to say in comment on Johnson’s tenure as Prime Minister that he has decided to celebrate the Queen’s 70th anniversary on the throne by reinstating imperial measures.
Such a painful shift might have torn other countries apart: It’s impossible to consider Donald Trump’s response to the storming of the Capitol, or the wider Republican Party’s response to losing the 2020 presidential election, without worrying about the Republic’s future make. It has certainly caused distress in Britain, particularly during the miners’ strike of the 1980s, but also more recently during the Brexit debates. But Britain has nonetheless weathered the grueling changes without losing its balance or its distinctive character.
There are many reasons for that. The transformation of the establishment into a meritocracy has prevented the emergence of an alienated intelligentsia. The major political parties have shown a genius for reform. The Tories have taken in immigrants (two of the three major offices of state, the Treasury and the Home Office, are occupied by ethnic minorities). The Labor Party has adapted to a new economy – despite a disastrous backslide under Jeremy Corbyn. Oxbridge Dons continue to dine by candlelight even as they shed light on exciting new areas of knowledge. Lawyers still wear horsehair wigs even when debating complicated corporate regulations.
The Queen has much to take credit for – not only by offering a point of continuity in a world that often seems to spiral out of control, but also by showing that old institutions can subtly adapt to change without losing some of their essential magic.
More from authors at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Britain takes school snobbery to new heights: Therese Raphael
• Anniversary parties won’t save Britain’s consumer economy: Andrea Felsted
• Britain begins to think the unthinkable: Life after the Queen: Martin Ivens
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global economics columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former contributor to The Economist, he is most recently the author of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.
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