"All but a few cynics like to see a pretty novel touching for a moment the dry scenes of the grave world." So wrote Walter Bagehot, the Victorian sociologist, economist, and editor about the British monarchy and its impact on ordinary people. He could well have been writing about today, instead of more than a century ago.
Splendid wedding plans for Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer July 29 preeminently show that the monarchy, indeed, remains a "pretty novel." It continues to "touch" the people, not only in Britain but also in Western Europe, Scandinavia, the United States, the Commonwealth, and many other countries around the world. An estimated 600 million viewers will watch the wedding on television.
And the British world does remain "grave" -- much more so, perhaps, than the world of Bagehot's Victorian era.
Indeed, change rushes in so fast on Britain today that the monarchy is rendered even more remarkable for its continuity and its symbolism of decent, enduring family and religious virtues.
On Nov. 14, 1948, when Prince Charles was born, Britain had stood firm against Nazi Germany. It was still perceived as a global superpower, a resolute repository of imaginative skills, shrewdly divesting itself of its empire. It was engaged in socialist experiments at home under a new Labour government. Life was hard and postwar rationing onerous. But the country was ready to endure such hardships to secure a bright future.
Today, as the Prince prepares to marry, the global superpower role is long gone. Rationing is over, and most British people live reasonably well. But the economy is sunk in the doldrums of a long recession, more deeply affected by world recession than many others in Europe. Some 2 1/2 million people are out of work.
The move into the European Community in the early 1970s may yet turn out to be a logical and necessary long-term move. But in the short term, many British people -- especially in the poorer northern and western regions -- see it as a costly mistake. More than half those questioned in a recent Which? magazine survey said Britain should never have entered the Community in the first place.
Of course, how badly Britain is doing depends on one's point of view. Some see two Britains -- the one that lives in the mind's eye for many throughout the world; home of our ancestors, green fields, tolerance, tradition, strength, and culture. Then there's the Britain of a struggling economy; the slowness to react to change; divisions of class; the changes in economic, political, and social fields. Britain's past was filled with magnificence, but its future remains a question mark.
Exiled South African newspaper editor Donald Woods, after three years in Britain, wrote in the Observer newspaper recently that British people themselves are all too quick to criticize themselves, to accuse one another of being lazy, prone to strikes, and class-conscious.
Compared to his own country, Mr. Woods Wrote: "It is a daily delight to breathe the fresh air of freedom" in Britain.
He remarked on the tolerance of ordinary people, the way the law is generally obeyed, the fact that policemen are still unarmed, the unfeigned affection that surrounds children and dogs, the soft sell of British advertisements, the quality of British television.
Recession is trimming the fat off many a British business. The magazine Management Today has just named a Sheffield business as Britain's fastest-growing company in the last decade: Burnett & Hallamshire, whose international turnover has raced from L9 million to L85 million ($18 million to
When chief executive George Helsby talks about the company's earthmoving, property, and oil interests, he also ticks off such factors as 12-hour workdays, modest headquarters, a driving search for opportunity at home and abroad, and shrewdly managed cash flows.
It can be done. Change does not have to be all bad. Britain today needs more imagination, more drive, more adventure, while retaining its traditional qualities.
One positive change in recent years is the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea. This continues to provide the Briish government with just under L4 billion ($8 billion) a year from taxes and royalties. Total revenue generated by the sale of oil and gas from Britain's continental shelf in 1980 was $9.5 billion. Reserves are said to total between 2.1 billion and 4.35 billion tons (one ton equals about 7 1/2 barrels).
Production was slightly higher in 1980 than in 1979. But overall production has been lower than some early forecasts, and Britain has just been forced to lower its price by $2 a barrel. This was in line with OPEC strategy to offset the effects of a world oil surplus. Britain cut its price with extreme reluctance: The government loses millions in government revenue with each dollar it knocks off the price per barrel.
As for the future, most economists gloomily agree recession will be with Britain for a long time yet. While the worst of the recession may be behind it, a genuine upturn has not yet started. Primer Minister Margaret Thatcher aims to be able to point to it by mid-1983, when she will be planning a general election.
Unemployment will still be high -- calling for new ideas on how to match the need for jobs with the need to rebuild housing, railroads, sewers; to provide help in the home, to train repairmen of all kinds, to take advantage of the microchip revolution in the way Japan has done.
Meanwhile, the effects of recession and joblessness are more and more evident -- distressing many a Briton who wonders where it will end.
Famous names of the past slowly disappear or fall heavily into debt: The MG and the triumph sports cars are no more. . . . The maker of Dinky Toy model cars beloved by generations of British, Commonwealth, and American children is bankrupt.
Sir Winston Churchill's publisher (Cassells) no longer publishes such books. . . . Once-proud British Rail, nationalized after World War II, lost more than L70 million ($140 million) last year alone. It now slashes services, raises fares, runs worn and outdated carriages, and constantly seeks more money from the government.
On a wider scale, the sight of people without jobs is so commonplace in the north and west of England, in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, that many seem to think unemployment is inevitable. ome 2.5 million people were out of work in May 1981. The total was rising more slowly than in the last quarter of 1980, but even government officials themselves see it going to 3 million before showing any improvement.
This is comparatively new. Eighteen months ago unemployment was at 1.3 million -- the same as it had been for three years. Then it started jumping upward by 70,000 people a month.
The impact of high unemployment is somewhat less than an outsider might imagine by scanning the figures. Only about 500,000 people have been out of work completely for a year or more. Almost 300,000 people actually find work every month. The overall jobless total keeps rising because more than 350,000 need new jobs each month: those leaving school, workers made redundant (fired), and married women wanting to return to work.
Newspapers, television screens, and radio programs spill over with debate about the causes and the remedies. This itself is also a new element in British society. Not surprisingly, the 1930's tradition of the March for Jobs has been revived. About 500 marchers reached London May 30 after 30 days of walking from Liverpool.
The Thatcher government dismisses the march as a political, rather than an economic, stunt and rejected comparison with the Jarrow crusade of 1936. "If they had marched for more productivity or flexibility or few new ideas, that would have been useful," said one government official. "But they didn't. Marching doesn't produce jobs, alas."
The "two nations" discerned by Benjamin Disraeli in the last century have well and truly come to pass in Britain today.
Southeast England is more and more an island of prosperity. People work, live well, and tend to vote Conservative. Just north of London, however, traditional industries such as shoes and textiles have been hit hard by inflation, trade union intransigence, poor management, old equipment, and slowness to accept change and meet competition. Conditions in the north, in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, are extremely worrying.
In Northern Ireland, for instance, unemployment stands at 17.6 percent, almost 1 in 6. Even excluding school-leavers, the rate among men was about 20 percent, or 1 in 5.
In the politically sensitive west Midlands, where Prime Minister Thatcher scored large gains in 1979, the unadjusted rate for all employees is 12.7 percent.
Politically, Britain is also seeing change. It may well be less than newspaper headlines would have us believe. But it has produced the Social Democratic Party -- which aims to seize the center-left as Tony Benn skillfully takes over the levers of Labour Party machinery and takes more and more power into the hands of the far left.
On the right, Mrs. Thatcher rules her party with a rod of iron, insisting that Conservative economics are the only way. The center-right in her Cabinet, led by such Tory "wets" as William Whitelaw and James Prior, stand by her for the moment, though it is widely assumed they will try to ditch her if the economy doesn't improve before the next election.
For the moment, the strength of Mr. Benn, the weakness of Labour leader Michael Foot, and the lack of workable alternative ideas among Conservatives leave Mrs. Thatcher politically preeminent.
Britain at this writing no longer has a strong, united opposition. "With 2.5 million people out of work," remarked David Owen, former Labour foreign secretary and a co-founder of the Social Democrats, "an opposition leader of stature, like Hugh Gaitskell, could have the country eating out of his hand. He would speak with moral force. But Michael Foot?"
On most issues, Mrs. Thatcher commands a majority of more than 40 votes. Labour is too divided to test her in Parliament. The loss of a strong opposition grieves many who believe it essential to the proper working of parliamentary democracy.
Britain is changing socially as well. Second-generation West Indians are less ready to accept menial jobs than their parents were, and racial tensions have flared in Bristol and Brixton, in London, in the last year. A new breed of university-educated, radial young people in their 20s and 30s dominate the grass roots of the Labour Party. Some are Marxist, some Trotskyist, almost all hard-left. Their skill and single- mindedness are currently routing centrists. Tony Benn has a working alliance with some of them as he fights Denis Healey for deputy leadership of the party.
Radical leftist Ken Livingstone has maneuvered his way to the head of the Greater London Council, the biggest local government organ in all of Europe. So London is ruled, in effect, by a young left-winger who opposes the monarchy, and has refused an invitation to the royal wedding. That's irony. That's change.