The state of the nation, 2011

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So what, exactly, does the royal wedding tell us about modern Britain, the monarchy and us? Cole Moreton joins the celebrating hordes to find out

Yes, there were cheers and smiles and there was singing – but when the bride had been kissed a second time, the Queen decided enough was enough and the crowds outside Buckingham Palace were given their orders. "There will be no more balcony appearances," said a voice over the tannoy. "Please leave the area and go back behind the barriers."

Those who did not obey were eased back into place by a slow-moving phalanx of police officers in dress uniform, like a lot of Dixons of Dock Green on a church parade. I heard one of them tell a disappointed American: "Yes sir, I'm afraid that's it." It was all rather like a posher version of another modern British institution – the opening of a new Ikea. But what did it all mean, really? What did the royal wedding say about us, as a nation, in 2011?

Well, first, that we're easily distracted. The economy is a mess, money is tight, but give us a day off work and a show to watch and we're happy. The viewing figures were huge, judging by the surge in demand for electricity. They may even have rivalled the wedding of Charles and Diana back in 1981. The parallels with that day went way beyond the fact that this was their son getting married: economic strife, rising unemployment, Tory fiscal shock tactics and riots on the streets – although now as then, even the rioters seemed to call a pause and stay at home to watch the telly.

Most of us tuned in for a bit, even if we didn't turn out. The crowds were respectable on the Mall, but there were empty spaces beyond the crash barriers. If the majority were tourists, that's OK: we learned that we are still really good at spit and polish and marching in time and putting on an immaculate display of pomp. Nobody does it better, that's still true.

We learned again how much we will forgive people if they're goodlooking. Kate was glossier than ever. William wore an unwise Arthur Scargill comb-over but he had his mother's smile. But it wasn't just external beauty. Somehow, in the midst of it all, these two young people managed to demonstrate real care for one another. They seemed to know each other, which is rare in the House of Windsor – more than that, they were visibly in love.

Standing at the altar of Westminster Abbey in front of two billion viewers, with the cameras (and lipreaders) watching his face, William was able to concentrate on his bride and say, "You look lovely, you look beautiful". Later, on the balcony where his father gave his mother a begrudging peck 30 years ago, it was William who said: "Let's give them another one. I love you. One more kiss, OK?" On a human level, it was charming to watch.

Yes, his bright red Guards uniform was straight out of a dressing-up box, as unearned as the Garter Star on his chest (and must have really annoyed the RAF, in which he is a serving pilot), but the bride looked lovely, didn't she? We're good at wedding dresses, we Brits. Hats, too. Philip Treacy did a roaring trade in fascinators. That's got to be worth a few quid for the economy.

No wonder George Osborne looked so pleased with himself at the abbey, among a sleek pack of Conservative politicians. They far outnumbered the Liberal Democrats and Labour, who were only allowed to have their leaders present. And they all looked well-accustomed to attending society weddings that appear to have been directed by Richard Curtis. Their alpha male was also beaming. "There's no greater country and better place to be than right here, right now," said David Cameron, hoping the rest of us would forget our troubles for the day.

Not everybody could. As the general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, said: "A significant minority of tight-fisted companies have decided to ignore the national mood and insist on keeping staff chained to their desks while everyone else is enjoying the bank holiday." Actually, it felt as if there were far fewer people in central London on Friday than at the march against spending cuts not so long ago – but of course that crowd could be dismissed as the usual grumbling suspects, while this patriotic throng of flag-wavers could be talked up as a convincing demonstration of support for the monarchy. Neither was true.

So what else did we learn from the wedding? That the toffs are back in charge, but they have changed. We have a new aristocracy. The hereditary peers have lost their appeal since they were thrown out of the Lords, Instead, the Establishment is choosing to fortify itself with outwardly successful, glossily wealthy, preferably beautiful people such as David and Victoria Beckham.

You can tell things are changing when a former prime minister such as Tony Blair is snubbed, and a movie director like Guy Ritchie is invited. But Mr Ritchie goes shooting, has a country pile and used to be married to Madonna, while Mr Blair would have insisted on bringing Cherie, and he boasted rather too much of teaching the Royal Family a thing or two about how to survive in the modern age. The truth is, they take their lessons from Mr Cameron these days.

We all know he's an Old Etonian with private wealth and a baronet in the family – but look how he put on eco-sneakers and cloaked his policies in greenery to gain control of his party and then the country. It was just enough change to appear modern, while keeping power in Conservative hands. Like the trees they planted inside Westminster Abbey, perhaps. Gorgeous, natural, organic, but enclosed by walls of ancient stone.

The Windsors have been watching Mr Cameron. They've also been watching Doctor Who. The Royal Family is regenerating. Strictly speaking, it has reached the moment in the plot when the Doctor gets fatally injured by a Dalek's gun – which, in this case, will be the death of Her Majesty. Beloved as she is, Her Majesty cannot go on for ever. And in accepting and training commoner Kate as her successor, she is doing her best to ensure the Family can survive. Actually, they are more like one of the Doctor's more comical enemies, the Abzorbaloff, who absorbs other people and takes on their energy, changing only subtly. That's what we have seen this weekend. With demands to be more like us, the Family has absorbed one of us into its body. Just one. Enough to change the DNA a little, for camouflage in the modern world.

And, of course, they tried for a second time to sell this story as a fairytale. The royal wedding showed that quite a lot of people in modern Britain still really want to believe in those. In truth, it was just a bit more plausible this time: Kate wasn't chosen from the aristocratic gene pool as a pliant teenage virgin, like Diana. She and William have lived together as man and wife, they've got to know each other, and already have an obvious intimacy.

"Checkmate Kate – You've Taken Your King," said one banner, perhaps dwelling too much on private matters. Or maybe it was a reference to the reputedly ferocious way Kate and her clan pursued the Prince, and made him her own, like Cinderella in reverse. But she wasn't sweeping ashes from the hearth before she met him. Kate isn't quite as common as most of us, coming from a wealthy Berkshire family who could afford to buy her a place at the best schools.

As the historian David Starkey says: "Kate belongs to a new elite – the people who have been to top public schools. In terms of attitude, style, and language, when you listen to Kate and William, would you know one is from 1,500 years of royal breeding and the other from a line of Durham miners? No."

Is she just like you or me? Only if you can afford £30,000 a year in school fees. Not that it matters now. "She's gone," said a father to his daughter after the bridal carriage had swept by, and she has. "Waity Katie" no more. Only Catherine now, the Duchess of Cambridge, apprentice to the woman whose borrowed tiara she was wearing under her bridal veil.

She will have to reinvent the role, because Elizabeth will be the last of her kind: the last king or queen in five centuries to carry with her the vision of a kingdom united by a single faith, a single cultural identity, with a monarch appointed by God.

Even before we get to William, it's inconceivable that Charles could make the same explicitly Anglican coronation vows as she did in 1953 without some reflection of the dramatic changes we have gone through as a nation since then; and without some concession to the Catholics among us, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Jews, the followers of many gods, the pagans, the atheists and the don't-cares.

A month or so ago, The Jewish Chronicle ran a story saying the wedding ceremony would include William smearing turmeric on Kate's hand like a Muslim groom, offering her a morsel of food like a Hindu, and smashing a glass under his heel like a Jew. The story was a spoof, roughly the Jewish equivalent of an April Fool. It got reported as a straight fact around the world – because it is exactly the sort of thing they should have done, in a kingdom where children are six times more likely than their parents to be mixed race. We have many cultures now, not just one, and a new Britishness is emerging. The Windsors have noticed – Charles talks about it all the time – but they don't seem to know how to react. For the moment, though, with the groom's sovereign grandmother present, things had to stay as they were. So although Britain is no longer a monocultural nation, this was a defiantly monocultural wedding.

The service was deeply conservative. A stirring swell of Elgar, a rousing verse of "Jerusalem", the anthem of the English public schools. The Queen gave a notional nod to Scotland and Ireland in the titles she bestowed upon her grandson on the morning of the ceremony, making him Earl of Strathearn and Baron Carrickfergus, but he no more has a connection to those places than he does to Cambridge, which he snubbed for St Andrews University.

The vast majority of the two million people who partied in the streets (down from 10 million in 1981) did so in England. There was a police charge on horses in Glasgow, and a republican protest on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, and while Anglesey held a party for its local RAF pilot, few other places in Wales were as engaged.

This was an English wedding, a white English wedding – the crowds were in contrast to the many skin-tones seen at Diana's funeral – and more specifically than that, a white English wedding of a certain kind. A Royal Berkshire wedding writ large.

Kate comes from a highly aspirant family with self-made wealth, the kind you find running golf clubs and church councils all over the county. She grew up surrounded by cavaliers, not roundheads. Her beloved must have shared his own painful stories about what happened to Diana, and yet she is still willing to risk being broken, for him.

Nobody wants to wish ill on a young couple on their wedding day, but the Bishop of London did point – inadvertently – to where trouble may lie ahead. Marriage can only work, he said in his wedding sermon, if both parties are equal and one does not have "the ambition to reform the other". But reforming Kate is exactly what the Family is doing. She reached for the stars like an astronaut, and now she has entered the gravity-defying, stomach-churning phase of her training. This is exactly the sort of relationship the bishop warned them against.

Kate is not Diana, though. She did not seem to go to the altar feeling "like a lamb to the slaughter" as the bride did in 1981. She was able to pause outside the abbey and wave to the crowds, not like a royal but like an excited bride, without fear. William was inside, working that huge room, smiling and laughing with the guests. Meanwhile there were 237 tweets a second, because in modern Britain we all feel the right to comment, and have the social networks to do so.

The historian Simon Schama told the BBC that if the monarchy was to survive, "which in my view it will, it has to have that cleverness about a simple connection with everybody in the country". Charles doesn't connect; he knows it and is frustrated. But his son seems able to, just by being himself. The getaway car was a stroke of genius: the future king driving an Aston Martin tied with balloons and a "Just Wed" number plate. "They could be any young couple, driving away from their wedding," said a commentator on the BBC. Yes, any married couple with a security squad tailing them closely, past thousands of policemen, with an RAF Sea King hovering overhead.

So what did the royal wedding tell us? That we are ruled by a family whose leading members only really understand or care about the English, and only the English with money, at that; who know that a great change is happening in the culture and ethnicity of the kingdom but don't quite feel ready – or able – to react to it yet; and who think of the rest of us as background noise, viewing figures, subjects.

They seem to believe that by adopting one of us – a carefully chosen, groomed, suitable sample – we will believe in fairytales again. And they may be right.

They know that if they put on a good enough show, with a little nod to minimalism in these straitened times, and continue to pull in the punters from abroad, we'll leave them be, and some of us will even still love them. But only about a fifth of us, to judge by the latest polls. The republicans have equal numbers, more or less.

And the rest of us? Well, we're interested so far as they're entertaining. Interested enough to switch on the telly, for a bit anyway, and look at the lovely lady in the lovely dress, and the handsome man in his posh uniform. And then switch it off and get on with life. Whether it's apathy or empathy, we'll leave them be for now. It's what Her Majesty would want.

Cole Moreton is the author of 'Is God Still An Englishman? How Britain Lost its Faith' (But Found New Soul), published by Little, Brown ( www.isgodstillanenglishman.com) www.colemoreton.com

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