David Kynaston’s superb book on the post-war years, Austerity Britain provides some stark reminders of just what it was like. There were no teabags, and no sliced bread. The war may have been over, but sweets, chocolate, sugar and meat were all still rationed. There were no dishwashers or automatic washing machines. There were no mobiles. Telephones were rare, and televisions even rarer, with just one channel. There were no trainers and no jeans. There were suits and cloth caps, dresses and hats. Houses were heated by coal and it was washday every Monday, with clothes hung out to dry. There were no motorways. There were just a handful of supermarkets. There were trolleybuses and steam engines. Above all there were filthy towns and dirty streets, with thick smog in the large cities. Weeds grew on derelict bomb-sites. Abortion, homosexual relations and suicide were all illegal; there was no Pill. Divorce was rare. Capital punishment was legal. The overwhelming majority of young people left school at fifteen. National service was compulsory. There were just a dozen small universities in England. The British Empire still stretched around the world.
It’s a country which even on that brief description seems extra-ordinarily alien. It was Britain in 1952, at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth II, whose seventieth jubilee we mark over the next couple of weeks. The world it conjures seems very remote, but it’s less than a single lifetime away. Even so, it was, in years, closer to the reign of Queen Victoria than it is to our own day. It is a stark reminder of just how much has changed in over the Queen’s reign. At various times over the next couple of weeks, we will be shown archive footage of the coronation: monochrome, grainy, heavy with the weight of tradition, and it will look very distant.
Perhaps the past always looks a little quaint – I recall a conversation with a group of Hallam alumni on a visit to Madrid. They had graduated in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and, one of their number, in 2015. The older alumni were talking about their recollections of the university, and one said in jest ‘and of course, there was no Wi-Fi in the library’. The youngest of the group looked dumbstruck and said with incredulity ‘what? There was no Wi-Fi?’ So perhaps the present is always amused by the past: perhaps it is one of the functions of the past to hold itself up as a mirror to the present so we can see how far, or how little, we have changed. But even so, there can surely have been no period of comparable length in which so much has changed for so many people in so many ways: there are the obvious changes of fashion – fashion changes always shock and amuse – and technology, but also the ways we work, the ways we travel, the ways we communicate, the ways we interact, the very fabric of our relationships and the ways we think about ourselves. I wrote a few weeks ago about Chris Bayly’s book on the Remaking of the Modern World, and, in a book about global economics and politics he concludes by arguing that one of the great shifts of the later twentieth century was in our conception of the self. In that sense, we have all of us changed immeasurably since our parents and grandparents observed the accession of the Queen.
The coronation of Elizabeth II was celebrated as a moment of supreme national unity. The number of television sets doubled to about two and a half million, and it is remembered as a moment, perhaps the first moment, when TV brought everyone together, and sometimes literally – surveys suggested that on average seven or eight people watched each set. There were parties in village halls and working men’s clubs on what turned out to be a grey and wet day. By the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, that unity was fraying, with more obvious dissent, and it is unlikely that the seventieth jubilee will see as much common purpose as either 1952 or 1977. We are a more fractured nation in almost every way, and perhaps nowhere more so than in the discomfort now so widely felt about our colonial and imperial past.
But this is an extra-ordinary moment in national and global experience. In all world history, only King Louis XIV of France (1643-1715, so 72 years) and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand (1943-2016) have reigned for longer, and Elizabeth II will overtake the latter on June 14th 2022. Amongst the street parties and barbecues, it’s an opportunity to think hard about where this country has come from, what has shaped our present, and what our future might look like. For almost every living person, the slight, reserved, publicly unassuming, now visibly frail figure of the Queen has been a constant in our lives. We may be a more divided and diverse country, but she has been a common reference point. Moreover, her presence links us back to those grainy television pictures and that alien world: a token of our shared past in our diverse present. For no-one alive today will anything like the Platinum Jubilee ever happen again. This really is a remarkable moment.