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A tale of two British coronations — and two very different economies

Stephen Beard May 5, 2023
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A man erects a life size cut-out of King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort on the Mall as preparations continue for the Coronation. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

A tale of two British coronations — and two very different economies

Stephen Beard May 5, 2023
Heard on:
A man erects a life size cut-out of King Charles III and Camilla, Queen Consort on the Mall as preparations continue for the Coronation. Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
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The United Kingdom is gearing up for the coronation of King Charles III this weekend with street parties and other festivities scheduled to take place across the country.

But opinion polls suggest that the celebrations seem likely to be rather muted compared with those that accompanied the coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth II, 70 years ago.

Charles has always been relatively less popular than his mother was and the age of deference has been dead for many decades in the U.K. The economy could also be a factor in the rather tepid response to the crowning of King Charles III thus far.

The economic backdrop to his mother’s coronation was very different from that of today.

Back in 1953, more than 20 million people are estimated to have watched the service on that relatively new-fangled device: black and white TV. For many of those viewers, it was the first time they had seen a televised event.

Television set ownership was still far from universal, and more than 10 million people are believed to have watched in the homes of friends and neighbors, while around 1.5 million watched in public places like pubs and cinemas.

While sycophantic commentators at the time gushed that the coronation marked the “dawn of a new age” and “the birth of a new Elizabethan era,” the U.K. was certainly not a land of milk and honey.

“The British economy had mostly recovered from the Second World War,” said Dr. Jason Lennard, an economic historian with the London School of Economics. “1953 also marked the recovery of the level of economic activity back to the wartime peak of 1943. But the U.K. was left with some scars.”

Bomb sites still pitted the country. The national debt, although falling, was still a whopping 165% of GDP. And, remnants of wartime austerity remained.

“Government controls still affected many areas of economic activity,” Lennard pointed out. “At the time of the coronation, for example, there was still some rationing of food.”  

But things were obviously improving. That, according to independent economist Andrew Hilton, might help explain the enthusiasm the coronation of Elizabeth unleashed, in spite of some continuing shortages.

“Meat was still on the ration in ’53 but sugar and sweets had just come off the ration so there was a kind of sugar rush going through the country at the time. And we were looking at the future with a great deal of optimism” Hilton said.     

That optimism was justified, according to Professor John Turner of Queen’s University in Belfast.

“The U.K. economy was about to go into an exceptional period of productivity growth, so you can think of 1953 as a turning point.” Turner said.

In the 70 years that have elapsed since then, the U.K. economy and society have undergone enormous change.

“Life expectancy at birth was 69 years, in 1953. Today it’s 82,” Turner said. “ Back then, around a quarter-million men were employed in the coal mines. Today it’s about 1,000. GDP per head has more than quadrupled in real terms. So a really huge change in the nature of the economy.”

The key difference between then and now, said Hilton, was the country’s psychological mindset.  

“In 1953 things had been bad but they were getting better and we expected them to get better” he said.

Whereas today, with the U.K. grappling with double-digit inflation and widespread labor unrest, “we sort of know in our hearts that things are not going to be as good going forward,” he said. “And I think that really affects our attitudes to the coronation today.”

As a constitutional monarch, King Charles’ ability to have an impact on the economy is minimal. As his mother was, he’s a symbolic head of state. But if there is a muted response to this weekend’s events, his coronation may come to symbolize the U.K.’s economic malaise.

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