For a record number of viewers around the world, yesterday's royal wedding at Westminster Abbey provided a few hours of unmitigated escapism.
They stayed up late to enjoy the spectacle in Australia, and they rose before dawn in the United States to luxuriate in a little of the Old Country's pageantry. But nowhere was the sense of escapism – or perhaps the need for it – greater than here in Britain, where up to a million people thronged the streets of London to cheer the newly married couple, and millions more on television watched Prince William and Kate Middleton take their vows.
The ceremonies, like the day itself, were as flawless as perhaps it is humanly possible to be. The guests arrived at the Abbey in good order; the bride looked not only radiant but genuinely happy. The respective families were at peace. The dress, kept secret until the last moment, was neither too showy nor too modest for a queen-to-be. Ed Miliband joined his fellow party leaders in wearing a morning suit. And a shy sun came out just as the newlyweds emerged to take their carriages. There was not one Palace balcony kiss, but two.
The few hitches only underlined the perfection of the rest. The usually silver-tongued Archbishop of Canterbury was the only speaker in the Abbey to hesitate over his lines. The groom struggled to place the ring on his bride's finger, and, early on in the procession, a particularly spirited horse threw its rider before continuing, in a rather admirable show of independence, alone.
Implicit in this day of escapism, of course, was not a little wishful thinking. What was made manifest was a largely imagined Britain. It was, briefly, just possible to believe that there was no rich and poor, no black or white, only loyal, flag-waving citizens belting out "Jerusalem". The police, in properly pressed uniforms and traditional helmets, exhibited the geniality of latter-day Dixons of Dock Green.
This was a Britain where it was taken for granted that royalty could ride safely through crowded streets in an open carriage. That this not only seemed, but actually was, feasible reflects well on everyone concerned – from the security planners to the couple themselves. It was, after all, only four months before that a car carrying the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall had been roughed up in Regent Street; just short of six years since London – and the nation's confidence – was shattered by the bomb attacks of 7 July.
Which brings us back with a bump to the reality that will start to impinge again today and will return in full force next week. Prince William may have married a commoner, and the daughter of self-starting parents may now be a duchess, but vast inequalities persist in Britain today and far less spectacular upward mobility is not even a dream for many.
The May Day holiday could see a very different mood on British streets. Abroad, there are still wars being fought: some of the troops on parade yesterday had been serving on the front line in Afghanistan only two weeks before. And as Britons raised their champagne glasses, Syrians risked their lives in a "day of rage" – just the latest revolt to convulse the region since the start of the year. The royal nuptials offered the country an interlude that was as charmed as it was welcome. By Tuesday, if not before, it will be business as usual.Reuse content