With unemployment recently having reached 2.5 million and still rising and the government provoking outrage in various sections of society for its package of savage public sector funding cuts, many politicians and pundits are hoping that the upcoming royal wedding will be just what’s needed to cheer the nation and restore some sense of national unity and harmony.
Sound familiar at all? Welcome to Britain in 1981.
The parallels between 30 years ago, when Charles and Diana were married in what was touted as the wedding of the century, if not the millennium, and today are quite striking. All right, there are one or two differences. It’s hard to imagine Margaret Thatcher and the then Liberal leader, David Steel, looking quite as cosy next to each other as Cameron and Clegg do.
While 2011 has not been without its fair share of protests (against higher tuition fees and against the cuts more generally), we, thankfully, have seen nothing that compares with the Brixton and Toxteth riots of 1981. And if you think police tactics today are a little heavy-handed, consider for a moment the sad case of David Moore, who died on the same day as Charles and Diana were married, after being knocked down by a police vehicle travelling at high speed. This was no tragic accident. Rather, Moore was deliberately run down by the police who were using what they called “hot pursuit” tactics (essentially just driving Land Rovers at crowds of people) to disperse rioters in Toxteth. “Kettling” is pretty small beer in comparison.
But there is another difference. It’s really not possible to overstate how big an event the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981 was in the lives of the millions of people who watched it and were completely captivated by the fairytale that unfolded that day. With a worldwide TV audience of over 700 million it remains one of the most watched TV events in history (although it pales in comparison to Diana’s funeral 16 years later, which attracted a whopping 2.5 billion viewers worldwide).
And here in Britain too, it generated considerable excitement, with 600,000 people lining the streets of London to get a glimpse of the newly-weds. And throughout the country, somewhere in the region of 10 million people attended royal wedding street parties.
In 2011, the statistics tell a rather different story. Despite the efforts of local councils to make organising a street party as simple as possible, far fewer people than was originally hoped have shown any desire to re-create the scenes of 30 years ago. According to www.streetparty.org.uk, some one million people are expected to attend street parties on the day of the royal wedding.
A number of theories have been put forward to try to explain why this number is so much lower than last time. Some have suggested the drop is a symptom of the decline of our sense of community in the last generation. Others have blamed the prospect of April showers ruining any outdoor celebrations on the day. Indeed, the national charity that helps residents stage street parties has even resorted to urging local organisers to consider postponing them until later in the year.
The proximity of the royal wedding date to the Easter weekend has also provided many Britons with the opportunity to take a longer holiday abroad without having to take too many extra days off work. One survey by TripAdvisor even found that almost one in three Britons are planning to be abroad for the Royal Wedding.
It has to be said that Will and Kate have also very consciously tried to make sure their wedding remains a fairly low key affair, for a royal wedding anyway. They have opted for the considerably smaller venue of Westminster Abbey for the wedding itself, as opposed to the cavernous St. Paul’s Cathedral where Prince William’s parents were married. And their guest list for the wedding is about half the size of Charles and Diana’s. In deference to our current age of austerity, they have asked that their guests give money to charity rather than showering them with traditional wedding gifts. This again is in stark contrast to the attitude Charles and Diana took 30 years ago, when the economy was in equally dire straits. As Diana famously put it in an interview not long before the wedding: “We’ve got two houses to fill.”
All in all then, it seems safe to say that we will see no repeat of the completely over-the-top display of pomp and pageantry and the national outpouring of joy and hopefulness that happened 30 years ago. And I don’t think it’s just because Will and Kate have picked a date in April, whereas Charles and Diana’s wedding happened at the height of summer, in late July. Besides, whatever happened to our ability as a nation to grin and bear it?
Blaming the lack of excitement surrounding the royal wedding on the possibility of bad weather sounds awfully reminiscent of George Osbourne’s rather pathetic attempt earlier this year to blame lower than expected growth figures on the snow. No, there’s definitely more to it than that.
The monarchy has been through some tough times since 1981 in terms of its popularity. Following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, the royal family’s approval rating took a major tumble, and it has taken years to recover. But it has recovered. Today both the Queen, and Prince William (though it has to be said not so much Prince Charles) are just about as popular in the polls as they ever have been. But a poll rating only tells part of the story.
The fact is that the mystique that surrounded the royal family 30 years ago has not recovered from the Diana debacle. Looking back, 1981 seems like an age of lost innocence. Too many people bought into the fairytale last time round and saw their hopes and dreams shattered when Charles and Diana’s marriage went pear-shaped in the ‘90s. Nobody understands this better than their eldest son, Prince William, and so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that he has made every effort to avoid making his special day anything like the fairytale extravaganza that was his parents’ wedding.