Voices: Passenger jets, television, the atomic age – the last coronation had it all to come
The last time Britain had a coronation, in 1953, no one said “Britain is broken”. The country was class-ridden, institutionally and cruelly homophobic – even to the likes of John Gielgud and Alan Turing – sexist, grotesquely monocultural and unequal.
Millions lived in slums, in what we’d now regard as abject poverty. The country was overladen with wartime debt. What’s more, apart from the odd splash of regal glamour, Britain was a dour, sour, dull and grey kind of place. The food was terrible. Hardly anyone owned a motor car, and a foreign holiday was the preserve of the rich.
Homeownership, bank accounts and a university education were for the few, not the many. Hanging was still a criminal sentence, and the judicial murder of Timothy Evans a recent act.
Yet, no one considered the place to be in the doldrums.
Far from it. To borrow another popular phrase from 2023, we owned nothing, but we were happy – and wildly optimistic to boot. Britain still had most of its empire, all of its Commonwealth, and regarded itself as the third greatest power in the world after the United States of America and the Soviet Union.
With Winston Churchill back in No 10, it seemed a confirmation that Great Britain was still a great global power. The project we know now as the EU was just beginning. The UK wished it well, but had no need of it. Britain detonated its first atom bomb in 1952. Only a little over a decade before, after all, the nation had "stood alone", and endured its finest hour in the face of Nazi Germany. The coronation of 1953 seemed a fine moment to remind ourselves of that. Once again Britain is looking for a role.
On coronation day, 2 June 1953, news reached the country of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s successful ascent of Everest. It seemed a fitting metaphor. The “new Elizabethan Age” had the sense of a new beginning, not an end. Just as the first Elizabethan Age had its privateers and buccaneers, explorers and merchants, and boasted innovations such as the tobacco and the potato, so too would the new Elizabethan Age, with its horizons set in science and outer space.
Queen Elizabeth II herself had something to say about that, in her Christmas message in 1953:
“Some people have expressed the hope that my reign may mark a new Elizabethan Age. Frankly I do not myself feel at all like my great Tudor forbear, who was blessed with neither husband nor children, who ruled as a despot and was never able to leave her native shores.
“But there is at least one very significant resemblance between her age and mine. For her kingdom, small though it may have been and poor by comparison with her European neighbours, was yet great in spirit and well endowed with men who were ready to encompass the Earth.
“Now, this great Commonwealth, of which I am so proud to be the head, and of which that ancient kingdom forms a part, though rich in material resources is richer still in the enterprise and courage of its peoples.
“Little did those adventurous heroes of Tudor and Stuart times realise what would grow from the settlements which they and later pioneers founded. From the empire of which they built the frame, there has arisen a worldwide fellowship of nations of a type never seen before.”
Never party political, the new Queen didn’t express a view on other improvements in the condition of her subjects. The welfare state was established and the NHS was comprehensive and free at the point of delivery. Only a few years earlier if you couldn’t afford private insurance or the fees, you couldn’t see a doctor unless they were prepared to consult for free.
Larger, roomier council houses were being built to a good standard. We enjoyed full employment. Intentional trade was growing, the age of austerity soon to give way to the era of “never had it so good”. Britain had at its feet the great technological marvels of the age: the passenger jet, the earliest computers, atomic power, and, of course, television. Britain was a pioneer in them all.
The Queen’s coronation was the first to be televised and the event gave a great boost to TV sales and rentals, because the monochrome thing in the corner of the lounge was so costly. It enabled a British family to sit at home hundreds of miles from Westminster Abbey and view this spectacular ancient ceremonial played out as it had been more or less for centuries.
Soon Britain was to be a televisual society, and one where the monarchy, like the politicians and everyone else had to cope with what Harold Macmillan, then an ambitious minister for housing with a target of 300,000 new homes per year, later called “the camera's hot, probing eye, these monstrous machines and their attendants”.
This brave new world made room for its young Queen and her modernising husband, Prince Philip (who, by the way, made sure that the BBC was allowed into the Abbey. He was up against the Queen herself, Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who thought that people watching at home “over their coffee cups” would detract from the dignity of the proceedings).
The event was covered by European networks and, a few years before the satellite could do the same across the Atlantic, American networks were permitted to “telerecord” the broadcast and have it flown to the US. Around 27 million people in the UK, with only about 3 million television sets, watched their monarch being crowned. The beginnings of a mass adoption of the television was the first achievement of the new Elizabethan Age.
As the people watched they felt a personal connection with the sacred service, something that seems less prevalent today. Back then, though, even the left-wing intellectuals of the day had to acknowledge the mystique of the House of Windsor. Light had not yet been allowed to illuminate the magic of monarchy, only to dispel it.
On coronation day in 1953, the academic, MP and future Labour cabinet minister Richard Crossman recorded this in his diary: “There is no doubt about the immense technical skill of the television performance... comparing notes with those MPs who chose to go into the Abbey, or to sit outside in the stands by the House of Commons, one finds that everyone is certain they had the best of it, since, curiously enough, everybody felt it was a wonderful show, wherever they were and whatever they were doing.
“But I don’t think that there can be any doubt that those who stayed at home viewing saw more, though, of course, they lost the colour and the sense of the crowds. My own feeling was that the ceremony was completely out of gear with modern democracy, but this is apparently shared by a minimal number of people, since those who are against it are against it in principle, and those who are for it are completely uncritical.”
The Britain of 2023 is in many ways the inverse of that of 1953. It’s clearly a wealthier, more open, tolerant and diverse society. The food’s miles better. You can buy anything you want, whenever you want. But are we happier? Hardly.
What’s more, as far as the monarchy is concerned, the age of deference is long past.
Successive scandals, not least those involving the now King and Queen Consort have eroded trust and respect for the institution. It’s a sorry and sometimes sordid litany of affairs, broken marriages, betrayal and outright immorality. We recall, with a shudder, Charles and then Princess Diana’s televised admissions of adultery. The allegations levelled against Prince Andrew and his disastrous interview with Emily Maitlis, when he sought to persuade the world that he couldn’t sweat. The horrible treatment of Prince Harry, and the accusations of racism towards Meghan, Duchess of Sussex were shaming.
The family’s seemingly cold reaction to the death of Diana in 1997 was probably the lowest point of the Queen’s reign, a moment when her usually infallible sense of public expectations deserted her.
All of that history has damaged the institution in a way that would have been unthinkable in 1953. In those days a portion of the British public believed that the Queen had been born through a form of divine delivery. That was bound to change, and the media was bound to get more intrusive as the public demanded more and more salacious stories. Yet there was nothing so inevitable about how the Windsors comported themselves.
Maybe God really does save them – from themselves as well as the knavish tricks of their enemies. Despite some gloomy prognostications about the indifference of the young, and their own inadvertent efforts, Britain’s monarchy isn’t broken. To borrow some 1950s optimism: perhaps the country too is on the mend.