While the royal honeymoon begins...Britain looks for ways to put a troubled household in order
The newlywed Prince and Princess of Wales are beginning this weekend the most exotic part of their honeymoon: a Mediterranean cruise in the royal yacht Britannia.
The flags are coming down in London after the splendid nuptials. In the United States, the national television audience is back to its early morning routine after rising early on the wedding day in order not to miss a thing of the live coverage provided from before dawn onward by the three American networks.
So perhaps a few reflections on this memorable week may be in order from an expatriate British viewer in New England.
Incontrovertibly the British have just given a world television audience three hours of the most splendid, colorful, moving, and near-flawless pageantry unlikely to be equaled again this century. It was a breathtaking and beautiful mixture of the sacred and the secular, of the human and of the stuff of state.
But why did it have such special appeal to Americans -- still only 205 years after their traumatic break with the crown?
The simple reason (this writer would submit) that Americans, whether of British stock or not, see increasingly their peculiar debt to a common history shared with the British till 1776.
And not only that, Americans are also coming to see that if the liberating ideas inherited in great part from Britain are to come to full fruitage in the human experience, the burden and the opportunity are now on American shoulders more than on those of the British.
Nothing happened in London on the wedding day to rob the occasion of any of its joy -- or a well-loved queen of her happy pride at seeing the son she has trained so well, wed at last to an eminently suitable and attractive wife.
But away to the northwest, how different from the rejoicing in the streets of London was the pall on Merseyside, where in the Toxteth area of Liverpool the first fatality was recorded in a resumption of the urban rioting that wrecked so many British cities earlier this month.
It is difficult to dientangle the thread of this paradoxical coincidence. Television viewers, for example, will have noticed in that vast throng cheering below the balcony at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, both young British blacks of Caribbean origin and the occasional youthful white devotee of "punk" with his hair dyed red, white, and blue. Yet nonwhite youths as well as punk and post-punk "oi" groups have reportedly been at the center of many urban riots and in the vanguard of attacks on the police.
The alienated young people at the center of the riots and looting, part of Britain's current heavy burden of unemployment, are probably not as antimonarchist or antinationalist as they are antipolitician. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had a hostile reception earlier this month when she visited Toxteth after the initial wave of rioting there.
On the eve of the royal wedding, Mrs. Thatcher's Cabinet announced a package of emergency youth unemployment measures, which may cost the government as much as $1 billion next year. But many believe it will take a lot more than that to help Britain (in the words of one Cabinet minister) move toward "being one nation at work instead of two, one employed and one unemployed."
At first sight Britain might seem a much more united and homogeneous society than is the United States. If one is thinking in ethnic or tribal terms, it certainly is. That kind of homogeneity asserted itself for all to see among the crowds in London for the wedding. But British society is, in fact, much more vulnerable than US society on the atavistic issues of class and race.
Anybody who lives in the US knows that American society is not completely purged of class and racism but what makes it unique and revolutionary is that from the very outset, the founding fathers of the US republic consciously eschewed class and race in their blueprint for the future. Instead they put forward, in a move unprecedented in human history, a Constitution founded expressly on egalitarianism and a set of universal principles.
That Constitution remains the yardstick by which every act of state in the US stands or falls. It eventually ensures social justice and mobility, and adaptation to change as no other constitution in the world has done.
Britain, on the other hand, is trapped. It is the victim as well as the beneficiary of its glorious past and civilized present. It is an overcrowded land, now bereft of the empire that made it wealthy and successful into the Victorian era and beyond. Roughly the size of New York State, it has to find room for the equivalent of a quarter of the population of the US. It is in fact the home of 20 million more people than it can feed and support from its own domestic resources.
To compound British problems, this is the moment when it has had for the first time to face up to the challenge of race in white vs. nonwhite terms. After World War II, Britain's nonwhite population shot up from virtually zero to 2 million. Those 2 million demand jobs and livelihoods.
It is a situation with which Britain still has to come to terms.
Watching the royal wedding on TV this Briton could not escape the conclusion that through recent troubled decades no single individuals as offered in his homeland such a powerful moral example as Queen Elizabeth herself. She is the embodiment of public duty and rectitude, but her reign has not fulfilled the hope alive at the time of her coronation nearly 30 years ago that she would take Britain into a new Elizabethan era as buoyant and triumphant as that of the first Elizabeth 400 years ago.
That hope still underpinned (and perhaps weighed down to) by past glories shifts increasingly to the young Prince of Wales whose marriage so many watched this week. He still has to await his turn on the throne, but for all the promise of his character and personal dedication, the job for him as eventual king of Britain is likely to get harder rather than easier between now and the end of the century.