In his seminal account of The English Constitution
, first published in 1867, Walter Bagehot separates the 'dignified' (the 'ancient' and ceremonial) from the 'efficient' (the 'modern' and functional) to explain how a modern system of government and public administration were able to coexist with an ancient constitution, 'august with the Gothic grandeur of a more imposing age'. Bagehot concluded that, despite being shrouded in the ceremonial trappings of the monarch, the British state was, in fact, a 'disguised republic'.
While those of us who have been glued to the Beeb this week could be forgiven for thinking otherwise, Richard Crossman (who penned a memorable introduction to the 1963 Fontana Classics edition) noted that the separation of the Queen from the 'actual business of government' had elevated the monarchy above party strife and made her a 'symbol of national unity'. For all of Walter Bagehot's incisive analysis of Britain's mercurial system of government, it should be said that, in 2023, his assertion that Brits really believe that the monarch 'rules by God's grace' is now under severe duress in a populace less wedded to the Church of England and increasingly defined by the impressive multiplicity of faiths now observed across the UK.
Nevertheless, as Martin Parr told the Evening Standard
, this coronation and Monday's 'Big Help Out' could gift us a 'chance for unity' after the acrimony over Brexit and the isolation of the Covid pandemic. This was unsurprisingly reflected in the service itself with a number of 'firsts' including Cardinal Vincent Nichols becoming the first Roman Catholic to participate in a coronation since the Reformation, girls singing in a formerly all-male choir, and the Welsh language (sung by Sir Bryn Terfel) featuring for the first time.
During what the Sunday Mirror
described as the 'most diverse and inclusive royal ceremony ever', it seemed particularly fitting that 75 years after the HMT Empire Windrush set sail from Kingston, Roderick Williams, born in North London to a Jamaican mother, sung a specially commissioned adaptation of the King's favourite hymn, Be Thou My Vision
Although the arrest of over 50 members of the anti-monarchy movement, Republic, by the characteristically over-zealous Metropolitan Police dampened the mood, it is noteworthy that the 'Carolean era' began with such mass emotional investment in a national event, with over 14 million people watching on the BBC alone. Perhaps, as Christopher Salmon wrote in the Listener
in 1953, the British people 'through their television sets found means… themselves to participate in the service and commonly, very commonly I am told, those who were watching were moved to tears'.
I can't say that I was moved to tears by this coronation but I have been touched by the frequent observation since the Queen died in September that the living links to the post-war era are now passing into history. Many of us are lucky to have parents or in my case grandparents born during the highwater period of the 'Never Again' era between July 1945 and the Queen's coronation in June 1953, when rationing and post-war austerity were still a reality. I was struck by the number of tweets and newspaper comments this weekend dedicated to family members of the British 'Golden Generation' who have died in the last year.
One of Clem Attlee's children who is thankfully still with us is my dear friend, the historian and crossbench peer, Peter Hennessy, who was Lauren Laverne's castaway on Desert Island Discs
on Sunday. The youngest of four, born to a Catholic family in North London in March 1947 – as he says, living proof of the rhythm method not working – Peter made his name as a journalist, covering Whitehall primarily at The Times
in the 1970s and early 80s. He then moved into academia at my alma mater, what was then Queen Mary and Westfield College, in September 1992.
Peter has been in parliament since 2010, when he entered the ermine-clad end of the Palace of Westminster through the House of Lords Appointment Commission. However, colleagues in the School of History at Queen Mary remember him as a supportive but insistent director of research and an exuberant teacher who sought to instil a love of archival research and nurture what Albert Einstein called 'a holy curiosity' in his students. With his dear friend, the late and much-missed John Ramsden – 'Rammers' was the chalk to Peter's cheese throughout the 1990s and 2000s – Peter helped establish the People's Palace (as part of the college was originally known) as the country's leading university for the study of contemporary British history.
Some academic historians deride Peter's work as mere journalism – not possessing sufficient 'rigour', in part due to his close relationship with many of his subjects. However, his semi-residency at the National Archives and his address book (which brought senior members of the Civil Service and the Secret Intelligence Service to Queen Mary long before either were subjected to the light of 'open government') allowed him to offer the most contemporary of contemporary history.
Asked to choose eight discs to take to his desert island, Peter selected an eclectic mix including the Slow Train
by Flanders & Swann (a lament to the quiet, rural stations closed by Dr Beeching), George Formby's Why Don't Women Like Me?
and Tom Lehrer's The Elements
infused with Schubert's String Quartet
and the Skye Boat Song
. In short, this week's episode was a prime example of why Desert Island Discs
is now the longest-running radio interview programme in the world, acting, as Kirsty Young described it, as 'a well-tethered hammock cradling each highly individual guest'.
Peter is a classic product of the Attlee settlement, telling The Times
a few years ago that his 'generational banner' is embroidered with William Beveridge's welfare reforms, full employment, the 1944 Education Act, the NHS, NATO, and the 'relatively smooth transition' from Empire to Commonwealth. He was educated at Marling Grammar School in Stroud before going to St John's College, Cambridge. With his highly intelligent and eccentric father, William, frequently out of work, the Hennessy family often relied on the welfare state. Peter described this as being 'lifted on the rising tide'.
As we begin a new chapter in our national story, it is striking that rising deprivation and spiralling food price inflation mean that, as Gordon Brown highlighted over the weekend, charities are now taking over from the welfare state as our national safety net and food banks are 'fast becoming the last line of defence against destitution'. In addition to policy change, including the introduction of an anti-destitution guarantee that would commit the UK Government to cover the cost of basic essentials, we need to rediscover the sense of collective endeavour that sustained and inspired Peter's post-war generation.
Today's generational banner must re-embroider the 'Never Again' impulse to ensure that institutionalised decency, nationwide access to social housing, and the eradication of demeaning poverty do not slip into history with the post-war epoch.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh