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It’s a Royal treat

Reeling under a recession, its Empire long gone, William and Kate’s wedding is the relief Britain needs while adapting to a changed world, writes Dipankar De Sarkar.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2011 21:04 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

It is hard to think of any nation that is more history-conscious than Britain. History tumbles out every day from the pages of its national dailies. From radio and television reports, Britons are carpet-bombed with commemorations that seek to mark the obscurest of events.

Politicians, generals, journalists and writers make it their business to drum into the heads of the populace: ‘You are British, you have history.’ History may have been declared dead in parts of the world; in Britain, it’s about to begin. Once again.

Today, Friday, April 29, Prince William is marrying his sweetheart Catherine Middleton. Unrivalled pomp, pageantry and rituals will be played out before an expected global audience of two billion. The actors in this elaborate theatre, from carriage footmen up, will be expected to harness every inch of their sense of history to impress the world.

Everyone in this nation of over 60 million has been primed already. For weeks now, we have read, watched, heard every detail of the first British Royal Wedding of the millennium. From the comfort our living rooms, we have met the Middletons in their village, watched William as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot and, days before Friday’s celebrations began, speculated on succession.

But why, a visitor could be forgiven for asking, are people celebrating in a country that appears to have so little to celebrate at this time in its history, with half a million public sector jobs facing the chop and a massive £80 billion being cut from the public services over the next four years? Precisely because, answers Martin Fidler, the butcher from Kate Middleton’s home village Bucklebury.

“This will give people a lift,” Fidler said last week. “There’s so much of doom and gloom around — we need it.” People have stopped buying steaks from his small family-run shop, opting instead for cheaper cuts, mince and sausages. “Meat is the most expensive item on your plate,” Fidler pointed out.

And this in Bucklebury, where signs of poverty and destitution are hard to come by. Small businesses such as his will find the going hard in the years ahead — the result of a credit crunch and recession that took the country close to a Greece-like bankruptcy at one stage, according to Prime Minister David Cameron.

Some relief is sorely needed, that much is clear. The past few months have been torrid for poor Britons. Parts of London have burned with riots, led by students angered by a steep hike in university student fees in a country faced with skills shortages. Half a million workers marched through London recently as anarchists attacked shops on Oxford Street.

It’s not only at home that Britons are struggling. Abroad, punch as it may above its weight, its influence is waning. Things have looked desperate at times. The national press sank its head with a collective groan when Cameron turned up in Egypt within days of the heady saffron revolution. The first western leader to visit Egypt since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, he had eight arms sellers in tow.

Now, the military action against the Libyan regime of Colonel Gaddafi has the ghost of Iraq written all over it. The anger of a generation that grew up helplessly watching Labour take Britain into a war founded on flimsy grounds could easily boil over. How can Britain justify the expense of another war, they ask, while cutting 42,000 defence jobs at home?

But history-minded Britons know better than anyone else that turbulent as 2010 and the recent months have been, the year Charles and Diana wedded 30 years ago was equally scarred with conflict and violence. In April 1981, the Margaret Thatcher government, faced the anger of 5,000 blacks in Brixton, culminating in unprecedented anti-police riots and changing race relations forever. A month later in the rebellious province of Northern Ireland, the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands renewed years of Republican violence and disaffection with British rule.

That was one more fairytale wedding — aren’t they all? — that was meant to have calmed the nation. In the event the nation rejoiced briefly and then watched the marriage unravel painfully and publicly. With every act played out on television channels and the pages of Sunday papers, a globalised media blew the mystique off the monarchy.

Everyone hopes William and Kate will have learned from these mistakes and, in time, help bring lasting stability to the monarchy — a likeable pair ordinary Britons will be able to look up to in times of trouble.

Things are changing rapidly for Britons — the old certainties of an Empire founded on pre-eminence in manufacturing and trade have long vanished, giving way to a fickle economy based primarily on financial services. What is emerging is a modern country that appears to have accepted these changes — and getting more used to the idea that it must embrace the new opportunities held out by India, China and others.

Although questions crop up sporadically on whether the Royal Family is worth the taxpayers’ money (£38.1 million last year, down £3 million from 2009), mostly the feeling is that they do a pretty good job of selling Britain. Today, the eyes of the world will be on William and Kate, and on Britain, as they work through the many history-laden rituals of monarchy. The overwhelmingly sentiment will be one of affection for the couple and the nation, as both try to adapt to a changed world.

Dipankar De Sarkar is ou London correspondent.