There is something peculiarly forgetful about the British. Every few years — the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011, the Diamond Jubilee and London Olympics in 2012 and, on Saturday, the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, the new Duke and Duchess of Sussex — we receive extraordinary evidence of Britain’s country’s “soft power”. Billions of eyes are fixed on Britain, entranced by its culture and institutions, traditions and modernity. The British are the centre of the world, and yet it seems to come as some surprise.
Why does it take foreigners getting excited about a royal wedding to remind us of the unique appeal of Britain? There is, of course, an elite cynicism among the liberal class about the monarchy and its pageantry, alongside a misplaced establishment view that Brexit is turning the country into a global irrelevance, an isolated footnote to Europe, rather than a distinct power in its own right. But even among patriotic people it is quite something to hear that an estimated 1.9 billion watched the Duke and Duchess get married, that a survey found Indians were more excited by the wedding even than Brits, and that some American TV networks began broadcasting at 4am Eastern Standard Time to sate the appetite of their royalty-hungry viewers.
They were tuning in to a truly British fairy tale. Other countries’ monarchies have embraced outsiders, including a son of the Queen of Denmark, who married a woman of European-Chinese ancestry. But Saturday’s wedding was about — and was seen to be about — Britain as well as the happy couple.
Most significantly, the world saw a country relaxed about race and identity. That the bride was mixed-race and the husband white was remarkable because it had not happened before in the Royal family, not because it is unusual in a country where 2.3 million people live with or are married to people from another race, according to the last Census, which showed the mixed-race population as the fastest growing by far.
The Duchess’ race is both unimportant and important: the former because it is essentially irrelevant to a couple in love; the latter because it disproves definitively the idea that Britishness is exclusive and that it is impossible to be from an ethnic minority background as well as patriotic. This is a powerful combination: a symbol of natural integration; the opposite of identity politics, but the embodiment of the message of Martin Luther King, who was so movingly quoted by Bishop Michael Curry.
The world also saw a country of supreme adaptability and confidence — even nonchalance — about it. No one could have watched the ceremony and thought it anything other than a royal wedding. And yet the newness was inescapable, too, an informality that few if anyone could have had any problem with. It is a cliche to say our traditions are respected as well as open to change, but it is so unlike much of the barren state ceremonial that afflicts many European countries. It is also rooted in wider British culture. The following, unrelated aspects of Britain’s attitude to change should be remarked upon more often: that one of the world’s oldest countries is also among the most receptive to new technology (far outstripping most of Europe); support for free trade and openness to the world is growing, bucking the trend in other developed economies; British-born people are far more likely than other nationalities to live abroad for a period.
Finally, there is what the wedding said about social mobility. No, not everyone will become a princess, obviously, but only a cruel parent would tell a young daughter (or son) watching yesterday that the Duchess’s admission into the Royal family is not a statement of hope. The Americans, a far more conspicuously meritocratic society than we are, seem to have a more acute understanding of why it matters that the hard-working daughter of a social worker and lighting director can marry a prince. We like social mobility, but too often seem to shrug when we see it.Saturday’s wedding was both a happy occasion for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and a triumph for Britain. The idea that everything must change for everything to stay the same has recently been applied narrowly to the monarchy, but it is relevant for the country, too. That we seem able to embrace this unconsciously is a good thing. Far better if we more regularly appreciated in Britain the greatness that other countries see as a consequence of us doing so.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Tom Welsh is comment editor at the Telegraph. Twitter: @TWWelsh