A new King, George VI had recently been crowned, and I became familiar with his features on the coins and stamps we used. The Prime Minister was Winston Churchill. I do remember him – his voice on the wireless became very familiar and I once cheered as he drove past in an open Rolls Royce during a rainstorm in Yorkshire. The date was 1943 and he must have been a very worried man at the time, but his V-sign as he passed us gave a message that all would be well, and so it turned out. Not for his job, though, as after the victory in 1945 Clement Attlee was elected, the most appropriately named of all who have held that office. In 1947, the young Princess Elizabeth had married a naval officer in a splendid ceremony that was captured on film, our first glimpse of royalty during a time of extreme austerity.
Shocked by a government that had done something of enduring value but at a financial cost, the British people resorted to their comfort blanket and brought back Churchill at an age and in a state of health that were unsuited to the job. He was in post in 1952 when we heard of the death of the King. That took us by surprise, as the nature of the serious illness for which he had recently been operated on, lung cancer, had been concealed from us and probably also from his children. Princess Elizabeth had just embarked with Prince Philip on a diplomatic visit to Africa and was in Kenya when she heard the news of his death and her fate.
I remember the sense of loss, sadness for the man who had stayed in London during the blitz and visited the victims of bombing, but also the sympathy people had for the new Queen, who showed stoicism and humanity on acceding to the throne. This was a time that most people now would not recognise, a time that followed a war during which we had become used to the horrors of bombing, shortages of everything, and the sadness of death. But it was also a time of hope for better things, and the young Queen Elizabeth, the girl whom we had seen on film in her ATS khaki, captured the mood. We heard her on the large wooden wireless set, our link with the world outside through the BBC Home Service, pledging to serve us whether her life would be short or long – asking for the help of God and for our support.
In those days, our history lessons emphasised the Tudor monarchs, our English lessons Shakespeare, and our geography the British Empire. It was unsurprising that people did indeed speak hopefully of a new Elizabethan age. The war in which we had once seemed alone and facing defeat had been won and, for a moment, it seemed possible that there might be a glorious period ahead. We had the ceremony of the Coronation in 1953 and, perhaps as a portent of times to come, it poured with rain, giving us a sight of the six-feet three-inch Queen Salote of Tonga, smiling and waving as she was soaked in her open carriage. Few had television then, and we watched such events on the newsreel.
Times changed, of course. Churchill's poor health got the better of him and over almost 14 years, his party sought successors from its aristocratic and landed members, coming up successively with the ailing Anthony Eden, the bookish Harold Macmillan, and the 14th Earl of Home, ignoring on the way some very serious intellectual contenders for the post. It seemed that the ruling party was wary of too obvious intelligence, and probably this applied to the electorate too. The second Elizabethan era saw Britain handing over its empire and substituting the more altruistic concept of a Commonwealth of Nations.
In 1964, after what he characterised as 14 years of misrule, the electorate voted in Harold Wilson. He was very intelligent but had the guile, or good sense, to conceal it from the public. I was not surprised, as a generation, myself included, had grown up to appreciate the Welfare State and knew what life was like before it. Our politics then settled into what might be considered a liberal consensus with alternating Labour and Conservative parties in power until 1979.
The period from 1952 until 1980 was to me the second Elizabethan era, the age in which Britain found its place in the changing world. The most striking change was in our society, driven by the Welfare State. Extreme poverty was abolished, universal education and free healthcare gave increasing opportunities to women and those born into manual labour. Expanding universities allowed many more to enter the professions. Strikingly, the gap between the rich and the poorest narrowed – there really was a levelling up.
Over the same period, immigration from the old empire (originally all those born in these countries had British passports) drove increasing diversity of our population, although it took a generation for this to filter up through the ingrained class system. And, most importantly, for a period Britain swallowed its arrogance and joined the European community of nations.
Some may remember the era as one of industrial disputes, strikes, power shortages, as newly enfranchised workers asserted their rights, but this was a symptom of their release from servitude. At the same time, our science and arts flourished, even our comedy and satire. Britain became a fairer, more just society, one that knew its place but maintained its high reputation and influence abroad. Our life expectancies lengthened. And symbolic of this change for the better, steadfast, honourable, and bound by her unflinching rule to do her duty, was Queen Elizabeth – not only a symbol but also an exemplar. This was her role, and as an ambassador for Britain she showed it to the world.
I prefer to leave the post-1979 part of the new Elizabethan era to later observers, but I suspect our late Queen was less in tune with the get-rich-quick, self-first ethos that was introduced and led to many of the present discontents, renewal of the yawning gap between the rich and poor, and Britain's declining reputation abroad. Nevertheless, moving slowly with the times, she stuck determinedly to her duty, even smiling and greeting her last Prime Minister as death sat on her shoulder.
I only spoke to her once, very briefly. She smiled – that smile and the twinkle in her eyes! She asked a couple of questions and shook my hand. That was all, but I had touched someone whose reach and influence was universal, who had been driven by her faith and sense of duty, and whose example should inspire all of us who lived under her wise and benign reign. Requiescat in pace
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own