Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Britain looks to the royal altar for political salvation, again

A terrible economic downturn, cities paralyzed by riots and strikes, a cost-cutting Conservative government - and then, in the midst of it all, the surprise announcement of a royal wedding.

Suddenly, it feels like 1981 again in London. It seems as if Britain repeatedly rescues itself from fiscal and political discord with a regal trip to the altar: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer back then, interrupting a terrible period of unrest and pain under Margaret Thatcher's austerity government; and, as Charles's office announced Tuesday, his oldest son Prince William and his girlfriend Kate Middleton now.

Then, as now, news of the wedding arrived as a deus ex machina for the government of the day, rescuing politicians from awkward situations.

Story continues below advertisement

Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron was holding a cabinet meeting Tuesday morning when the news came through, and facing two tricky situations: the payout of a million pounds to British prisoners who had been held in Guantanamo Bay, and a small scandal involving Mr. Cameron's personal photographer being on the public payroll.

When news of the forthcoming wedding reached the table at 10 Downing St. - and the realization that it would drown out any other news for at least a day - "there was a great banging on the table," Mr. Cameron told reporters.

Everyone in Britain knew what this meant: Whatever the circumstances, the wedding of a future head of state becomes a national industry, a major year-long undertaking for government, media and the tourist industry.

"Everyone in the country will be united in delight and joy over this," Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister, said shortly afterward, reflecting a broad sense of hope that the wedding would unite an increasingly divided nation in the midst of terrible fiscal and economic pains.

If so, it will be, as it was in 1981, a great reversal of public opinion for most Britons. For the past decade, the public here have displayed a great disinterest in the royal family, the explosive 1997 funeral of Diana leading to a decade-long hangover; the opening of the Diana Memorial Fountain was received as a damp squib.

But there are signs now that blue blood has come back in fashion: Britain has just elected its most aristocratic government in a century, its cabinet peppered with members of the landed gentry (including both Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg, the latter through the Russian-aristocrat side of his family).

And Britons have gorged themselves this year on the TV series Downton Abbey, which attracts record-breaking ratings and unabashedly celebrates the lives of the landed classes.

Story continues below advertisement

It seems to mark a sharp reversal, almost a defensive return to comforting paternal images amidst an increasingly harsh reality. After all, it was only five years ago that the aristocracy, dressed in fox-hunting garb, rioted on the lawn of Westminster in violent protest against the Labour Party's efforts to ban the hunt.

Today, the blue-bloods are back on the podium, and the commoners rioting on the streets outside, a return to a certain sort of British normalcy.

But it isn't quite what it seems.

"It is superficially the same, but this is not the same world it was in 1981 - those days are gone forever," said author Peter York, whose chronicles of the moneyed classes were bestsellers in the 1980s. "For one thing, I sense that the public are decidedly underwhelmed by this. And besides, she's a commoner."

Indeed, while Diana was more aristocratic than the Queen herself, Ms. Middleton is a commoner, the 28-year-old child of people who actually work for a living.

And, in the ultimate reversal of roles, whereas all of Britain seemed determined to imitate Diana in 1981, adopting her hairstyle and clothing tastes, today it is they who are imitating us: Prince William has adopted the clothing, musical tastes and even the Estuary-English accent of the ordinary British subject. It might bring back nostalgia for the bad old days of the early '80s, but this royal wedding will be a much quieter, less historic event.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to