Londoners Push Austerity, Poor Weather Aside for Diamond Jubilee


A June 1953 coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II with her husband Prince Philip, duke of Edinburgh. Photo courtesy of the Library and Archives of Canada.

LONDON — Reminiscent of the morning of her coronation 59 years ago, the celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II is taking place amid gray skies, rain and temperatures in the 40s. The elements have not been enough to stop thousands of street parties or more than 1 million Britons and tourists from standing for hours as a flotilla of more than 1,000 ships and boats, led by the queen’s barge, went down the Thames River. The luckier ones had friends with riverside property and could duck inside for quick drinks.

But if British weather remains a constant, what has changed in the 60 years since Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor took the throne on the death of her father, King George VI, in 1952 are the expectations of her 60 million subjects. London was then a sooty capital, still pock-marked with bomb craters, its inhabitants enduring food rationing eight years after World War II. (Some Londoners stashed chocolates in unlikely places decades after as a lingering vestige of those childhood deprivations.) And Britain clung to the economically and politically unsustainable expense of stationing more than 800,000 soldiers and sailors from Asia to Africa.

At the coronation, even such sober analysts as New York Times columnist C.L. Sulzberger waxed about a second Elizabethan Age. Those pretenses exploded three years later in the fiasco of the failed Suez campaign, and the last jewel in the imperial crown disappeared when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

The last Diamond Jubilee, for Queen Victoria in 1897, was according to the author James (now Jan) Morris in “Farewell the Trumpets” a blatant celebration of empire. For Elizabeth’s jubilee, the empire has come home.

The capital, as spic and span as it has been in its history for both the jubilee and upcoming Olympics, is now not only a mecca for the world’s billionaires (who have helped drive real estate and other prices to insane levels) but also for aspiring youth who hope to become multimillionaires in finance or to become celebrity fashion designers, chefs and pop stars, much less the hundreds of thousands merely seeking a better life. London and the rest of Britain are now much more diverse, and the babble of foreign tongues is more pervasive than when I lived here 40 years ago. But in the process, as finance boomed and the traditional industries of coal, steel, auto and shipbuilding declined, the income gap between the richest and the rest has become the widest in Europe.

Rather than the vestiges of wartime austerity, Britons are going through a bout of government-imposed belt-tightening and a recession that could careen into something far worse if Britain’s now-major trading partner, the eurozone, suffers an increasingly possible collapse.

But for this celebratory four-day weekend, those headlines have been pushed to the background, as have memories of the populist uprising that accompanied the royal family’s mishandling of the death of Princess Diana in 1997. All the more so as the capital and its chattering classes — and even more its teeth-grinding republican minority (some 1,200 of whom gathered for a demonstration Sunday) — try to explain how an 86-year-old great-grandmother has come to embody the sentiments of an intensely, if usually understated, patriotic nation.

At a Sunday Jubilee service replete with hymns from previous coronations and a full-throated rendering of the national anthem blended into Anglican liturgy, the vicar of St. Mary Abbots Church in Kensington said in his homily, “She has been the thread of continuity as our nation has changed beyond recognition.”

“She was a constant in a shifting world,” wrote her best biographer, Ben Pimlott. Her first of 14 prime ministers were born in the 19th century; her current one is a contemporary of her youngest son.

Where history is redolent on nearly every street corner, even as Britain has evolved into a socially liberal, modern parliamentary democracy with national health care, the queen is the connection to a storied past going back to the first Saxon king in 802 or the “modern” monarchy of 1066.

Amid the holiday festivities, as the Union Jack seems to decorate almost every shop window and building, the queen, who shows no sign of taking late retirement or handing the job off to her less popular heir Prince Charles, the country is thanking her for decades of dutiful service, for making small talk at thousands of tedious receptions and even at this late stage, for taking 15 foreign trips in the last five years including last year’s journey of reconciliation to Ireland, which merited the overused adjective of historic.

In an otherwise acid column in The Times of London, Philip Collins summed it up most succinctly: “The Diamond Jubilee will be a statement that this is a good country and we like living here.”

Follow Michael D. Mosettig, former NewsHour foreign affairs editor, on Twitter.