The delusions of empire are perhaps losing their power to provoke national self-laceration as we come to terms with our middling rank as a medium-sized European country.
We wonder if there was a secret planning meeting in the Chinese Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace a year or two ago, at which a cold-eyed royal adviser offered the view that the survival of the monarchy in this country depended on two things: the weather over the four days of 1-4 June 2002 and the performance of the England football team in its first World Cup match.
It is curious that our reflections of the past 50 years should be so coloured by the transient moods of the moment. If England had won yesterday there would have been – in England at least – much recalling of "You've never had it so good" under Queen Elizabeth's third Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, and the "Feelgood factor" under her eighth, Margaret Thatcher.
Yet a score draw seems a fitting result, standing for much more than the state of our national game. The weather was also a tie, between sunshine and outbreaks of thundery rain; as was the contest between the jubilee and the World Cup. The national conversation seems like one between two people talking at cross purposes about patriotism. It was notable that the England team were unwilling to be seen singing the national anthem, which was nevertheless belted out unofficially by the fans at the start of the second half, when their team was still a goal ahead.
Yet the confusions of identity, between Union flags and St George crosses, between England and the other nationalities of the United Kingdom, and between football and real life have not provoked passionate animosities. The England fans in Japan have been well behaved so far, while the flag-on-a-van phenomenon here has not been accompanied by the anti-foreigner excesses in the press of past campaigns.
Looking back over the Queen's reign, it seems self-evident that the country is far better off now than it was in 1952. We are incomparably richer, healthier, better educated and more diverse. Most importantly, we have hardly known war over those five decades. Not as the result of anything the Queen has done or not done, of course, although she has discharged her responsibilities as a point of national unity and international co-operation with skill.
Yet the national mood is one in which uncertainty, anger and alienation vie with contentment. The economy has grown steadily for the past 10 years, but we are not yet sure if last year's hesitation was a pause for breath or the start of a recession.
Instead of spending most of the long bank holiday weekend camped on the floor of Gatwick airport, families stayed at home. Is it because they want to watch the football, are afraid of flying or are pleased that the British countryside is open for business after last year's foot-and-mouth disaster?
For much of the past 50 years, the fortunes of the England football team have reflected those of the nation which, in large part, it represents. It has never been as good as the English thought, not even in 1966, and, although it has improved in recent years, a draw was slightly more than was deserved yesterday.
At last, though, the delusions of empire are perhaps losing their power to provoke national self-laceration as we come to terms with our middling rank as a medium-sized European country.
How to sum up the last half-century? A score draw. We've never had it so adequate.Reuse content