Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
We can all agree that Britain does pageantry well. True, we are champions in a field where the international competition is limited.
The only other country that crowns its monarchs in a Christian ceremony is Tonga. The UK being world-beating at coronations is rather like Ireland triumphing at hurling, or a US baseball team winning the World Series, or India completely pwning the Kabaddi World Cup.
Even so, most of us feel better than we did last week. The coronation rites remind us of who we are: not a random collection of individuals who happen to inhabit a damp, green archipelago, but a nation with shared dreams.
The essentials of the ceremony – the king flanked by two bishops, the officiation by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the oath promising to uphold our laws, the acclamation – have not changed since Anglo-Saxon times. The unction (the part that was screened off) stretches back 3,000 years, to the imperium of Solomon. Don’t underestimate the seriousness of an old country.
The coronation looked, on the surface, like a definitive return to normality after the hellishness of the lockdowns. But, just as at the last coronation, the worst of the damage is not visible to the naked eye.
In 1953, it felt superficially as if the country had moved on from wartime devastation.
Yes, our cities were still pockmarked by bomb damage, but the craters were becoming sparser and sparser (the monstrosities that were built on some of those craters were uglier than anything done by the Luftwaffe, but that’s another story). Identity cards had been scrapped the previous year, and food rationing was to end the following year.
The cost of the war, though, was measured in much more than bomb damage. Britain had emerged in 1945 victorious but ruined, with a debt of more than twice its GDP. Successive governments decided that they had little option but to reduce that debt through inflation, with devastating consequences for our productivity and competitiveness.
Worse, the public was in no mood to retrench after the exceptional wartime expenditure. Although defence spending fell after 1945, colossal new healthcare, pensions, and benefits programmes were launched – as if the state had kept the cash it had had to spend on defeating the Nazis.
Six years of mobilisation had created a widespread expectation of state intervention, and successive governments of both parties allowed expenditure to be dictated by electoral demand rather than by available resources.
I don’t need to spell out the parallels, do I? The lockdowns did not last as long as the Second World War, but the economic contraction they caused was sharper, and the restrictions on our freedom were more extreme.
Now, as then, we refuse to face up to the vastness of the cost. For two years, we effectively borrowed from our future selves by paying people to stay home. That debt cannot be wished away.
And now, as then, the public’s expectation of higher spending has surged just as the government has run out of cash. The furlough scheme may have been wound up, but there is no willingness to let spending on healthcare or social security return to anywhere near their pre-2020 levels.
Just as after the war, there is an assumption that taxation must instead rise to fund a more activist state.
Now, as then, the Conservative Party finds itself swept along with the current. In the 1950s, the Tories believed that accepting welfarism and permanently higher spending was necessary if they wanted to remain politically viable. When Peter Thorneycroft resigned as Chancellor in 1958 in protest at rising budgets, Harold Macmillan dismissed it as “little local difficulties”.
And so it proved. It took two more decades of decline, plus the 1976 IMF bailout, before people were ready to listen to the case for cuts.
The reflex today is the same. Hammered at the local elections, the Conservatives immediately responded by promising more cash for GP surgeries.
How far can we push the parallel? Was the Truss/Kwarteng budget the equivalent of Edward Heath’s Selsdon manifesto, a false dawn before the real sunrise? Must a Labour government collapse before people truly understand that, as a country, we are skint? That we are about to be overtaken by Slovenia and, within a decade, by Poland?
I don’t mean to depress you. I enjoyed the coronation, too, and the round of village parties with which my corner of rural Hampshire marked the extended weekend. But don’t let it hypnotise you. We are insolvent, indebted – and in denial.