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Queen Elizabeth II: the constant face of a changing Britain

For many, the Queen is a symbol of perpetual, old-fashioned stability. Yet, says Dominic Sandbrook, she has nonetheless been part of one of the most remarkable chapters of social transformation in British life

Princess Elizabeth
Published: January 25, 2022 at 5:23 pm
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Shortly before 3am on 21 April 1926, a little girl was born to Prince Albert, Duke of York (the future George VI) and his wife Elizabeth. The new arrival’s exhausted mother had been hoping for a girl, while her father could barely contain his joy. “We always wanted a child,” Albert wrote afterwards, “to make our happiness complete.”

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Few could have guessed it at the time, but that little girl would become perhaps the most recognisable British face of the century. In many ways, her life could hardly have been more different from the experiences of most ordinary people. Elizabeth II has never shopped at Asda or at Aldi; never spent a week at Butlin’s or at Center Parcs; never filled in a pools coupon or gambled on the Lottery; never worried about her hire-purchase repayments, her mortgage or her pension.

She has never known the fear of unemployment or the joy of promotion; never felt the anxiety of the first week at university or the nerves of a first job interview; never been on a demonstration, danced at a rock festival or watched a football match in a pub. She does, however, watch television; her favourite shows down the years reportedly include Dad’s Army, Midsomer Murders and, perhaps a little implausibly, The Bill. In this, at least, she is not so different from millions of her fellow Britons.

As Elizabeth II, she has become the living symbol of our nation, from giggling princess to radiant young queen, from anxious mother to beloved grandmother. Indeed, on the surface at least, the Queen has become the incarnation of the eternal, unchanging verities of selflessness, self-discipline and responsibility. To many of her people, she represents stability and continuity, the virtues of the tweed overcoat and the battered Land Rover, the appeal of old-fashioned Christian charity and unashamed moral conservatism; the embodiment not just of our royal family, our national history and our collective traditions, but of Britishness itself.

Yet the irony is that few monarchs have presided over an age of such dramatic and turbulent change, from the disappearance of the British empire and the decline of British Christianity to the rise of divorce and digital technology. Indeed, the very fact of change is surely a compelling reason why her deliberately old-fashioned image remains so overwhelmingly popular. For to look back across the Queen’s nine decades is to gaze across a social and cultural landscape that, superficially at least, has changed utterly. Our clothes, our food, our pleasures, our values, even our holidays and our hobbies: all these things tell a story of astonishing transformation.

Even in the late 1920s, there were powerful hints of the changes that would dramatically reshape British life and culture during the future Queen’s lifetime

When Elizabeth was born in April 1926, Britain was only weeks away from the outbreak of the General Strike. The scars of the First World War were still raw; with unemployment having soared in the immediate aftermath, disabled servicemen could be seen begging on street corners. The prime minister of the day, Stanley Baldwin, was at heart and in outlook something of a Victorian, a Worcestershire industrialist who had anonymously donated around a fifth of his personal fortune to help repay Britain’s war debts. And against Baldwin’s Conservatives stood a Labour party dominated by trade unionists and manual workers, whose leader, Ramsay MacDonald, was the illegitimate son of a Scottish farm labourer and a housemaid.

Yet although it is tempting to play up the Victorianism of Baldwin’s Britain, and the supposed backwardness of the years when little Elizabeth was reportedly “chattering and bombarding the guests with crackers” at Christmas parties, this would, I think, be a mistake. Even in the late 1920s, there were powerful hints of the changes that would dramatically reshape British life and culture during the future Queen’s lifetime. For although the twenties and thirties are often remembered as an age of strikes and dole queues, captured in the memorable images of long lines of men in flat caps and grey overcoats, this was only part of the story.

Growing up in a time of change

Even as young Elizabeth was playing on her rocking horse, thousands of young women, for example, were cutting their hair shorter, wearing their skirts higher, smoking, drinking and even driving. And in 1934, when Elizabeth was just seven, the writer JB Priestley memorably suggested that for all the appearance of tradition, England was in the throes of tremendous social change. (Unlike many other writers of the day, he really did mean England, rather than Britain. Even so, his remarks apply equally well to Wales and Scotland.)

There were, Priestley wrote, three versions of England. One was “Old England, the country of the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of parson and squire; guide-book and quaint highways and byways England.” This, of course, is the England that millions of tourists visit every year; the England of Oxford and Cambridge, Bath and the Cotswolds; it is also, in essence, the England that Elizabeth II has come above all to represent.

Priestley’s second England, however, has now almost vanished. This was the England of the urban north and Midlands, “the 19th-century England, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways; of thousands of rows of little houses all alike, sham Gothic churches, square-faced chapels, Town Halls, Mechanics’ Institutes, mills, foundries, warehouses… mill chimneys, slums, fried-fish shops, public-houses with red blinds, bethels in corrugated iron, good-class draper’s and confectioners’ shops, a cynically devastated countryside, sooty dismal little towns, and still sootier grim fortress-like cities.”

You can, of course, still see the remains of this England, though it is surely telling that it has been best preserved in places like the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, where dozens of Victorian buildings, from workshops to confectionary stores, have been painstakingly moved and maintained. In the early 1930s, when Priestley was writing, it was threatened by the experience of the Depression. It enjoyed a last hurrah in the 1950s, when British manufacturers enjoyed a brief but illusory Indian summer as their foreign competitors struggled to rebuild from the devastation of the Second World War. But although poverty and deprivation have never gone away, the world of the industrial working class, the world of Methodist chapels and street corner pubs, has largely disappeared.

It was Priestley’s third England, though, that held the key to the immense social changes that broke like a tidal wave over the United Kingdom during Elizabeth II’s lifetime. This was what he called the “new postwar England… the England of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafes, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworths, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons”. And although some of this seems quaint today – the greyhound tracks and cigarette coupons, for example – there is also much that seems prescient and familiar.

I think Priestley’s third England – a society already being transformed by leisure, affluence and consumerism, especially in those parts of the south and Midlands that had been spared the ravages of the Depression – offered a preview of the changes that would sweep over the nation during the 1950s and 1960s. These changes were delayed, of course, by the onset of the Second World War (in which the young Elizabeth joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service as No 230873 Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor) and by the privations of postwar austerity. But, given the transformation of the economy, the rise of consumerism and the expansion of education, they were surely inevitable.

Elizabeth takes the throne

Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, in an age of smog and fog, thick greatcoats, stodgy food and heavy coins; the age of Stanley Matthews and Billy Wright, Vera Lynn and Arthur Askey. Class consciousness hung heavy in the air, yet most people felt tightly connected by their common culture. By contemporary standards, it looks an almost antediluvian world. More than one in four people had outside toilets; fridges and washing machines were expensive luxuries; televisions were almost unknown; and there were three million cars on the roads, compared with more than 35 million today.

Yet this was also a world in flux. After years of greyness, deprivation and austerity, Britain’s new Queen seemed to symbolise a better, brighter future. Commentators talked of a New Elizabethan Age, an age of technological innovation and cultural renaissance. On Cor­on­ation Day, 2 June 1953, around 3 million people lined the streets of London, cheering and waving their flags despite the pouring rain.

Even more significantly – especially for the long-term future of the monarchy – the sales of new television sets doubled in the month before the coronation. On the big day itself, some 20 million people watched several hours of the BBC’s reverential black and white coverage. Indeed, to most ordinary viewers, it was a national spectacle like no other.

To Elizabeth herself, now a serious, reserved young mother, the coronation was above all a deeply personal, even spiritual experience. Yet it was also awash with the kind of consumerism that would come to define our national life in the decades that followed. Sales of flags, banners and memorabilia went through the roof and the day even gave the country a new national dish – Coronation Chicken, an Anglo-Indian mixture invented especially for the palace banquet by the food writer Constance Spry and the chef Rosemary Hume.

Two years later, as the press pored over the love life of the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret, who had become involved with the divorced Group Captain Peter Townsend, came another sign of the new pressures of the mass media and the cult of celebrity, which would only increase as Elizabeth’s reign continued.

The magic of monarchy had long resided in its paradoxical combination of remoteness and accessibility. But with the birth of television and the emergence of a less deferential media culture, this would become a harder trick to pull off. Indeed, re-reading those gossip columns from 1955, it is hard not to think of what was coming: the divorces of the Queen’s children, the Sarah Ferguson saga, the death of Diana and the ensuring media furore.

In the years that followed, the rhetoric of a New Elizabethan age began to look increasingly hollow. Only three years after the coronation, the fiasco of the Suez Crisis laid bare Britain’s reduced economic and diplomatic position for all to see. By the 10th anniversary of her accession, much of the empire had already evaporated.

Pitfalls in the New Elizabethan Age

The influx of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from Britain’s former colonies transformed the look of our cities, the sound of our music and even the flavours of our foods, but it also exposed an uglier side to our national life, from the young hoodlums who rioted in Notting Hill in 1958 to the skinheads who marched against the Ugandan Asians in 1972. And although the supposedly Swinging Sixties brought rising living standards, new universities and the liberalisation of the laws governing divorce, abortion and homosexuality, they also brought new anxieties about the competitive decline of Britain’s economy and new uncertainties about a post-imperial nation’s place in a changing world.

The curious thing is that through all this, Elizabeth herself remained remarkably constant. The tapes of her annual Christmas broadcasts show that her accent gently altered over the years, losing a little of the clipped, glacial rigidity of her first broadcasts. In essence, though, she always played the same part, never deviating from her lines, never faltering, never putting so much as a foot out of place. And the truth is that this explains much of her success. In an age where everything else seemed in flux – when the currency was being decimalised, when bombs were going off in Northern Ireland, when factories across the land were closing their doors, when the advent of computer technology was transforming the high street – Elizabeth represented a reassuring fixed point. Everything else had changed. But she, at least, seemed to stay the same.

In some ways, the story of Britain during Elizabeth’s lifetime has been one of conspicuous decline. In 1926, the empire was at its height, while the great engine of British manufacturing was still running at full throttle. The empire is now merely a distant and often controversial memory, while Britain has perhaps never been more dependent on its neighbours and its alliances, not just for its energy, but for its military security and economic prosperity.

In other ways, though, life for ordinary people has very clearly improved. Britain in 2016 is a more cosmopolitan, outward-looking country than in 1926, its people benefiting from freedoms and opportunities of which their predecessors could barely dream. Indeed, nothing sums that up better than a social change perfectly symbolised by Elizabeth’s own extraordinary prominence as a symbol of her nation – namely, the transformation in the horizons and expectations of Britain’s women.

Today, when millions of women head out to work every day, we can easily forget how different life was in the 1920s. We rarely think of Elizabeth II as a working mother, since her job is not one to which the rest of us can reasonably aspire and her life often seems almost impossibly remote. But that, of course, is exactly what she has been. And, in a funny way, perhaps that makes her a surprisingly appropriate symbol of change after all.

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This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine's 'The Queen at 90' bookazine

Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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