Over the last few weeks I have had the fascinating task of helping to select 60 people “whose actions have had a significant impact on lives in these islands and/or given the age its character” for a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 series. Entitled The New Elizabethans, we had, it seemed, been invited to update the story of “Good Queen Bess.” And initially such parallels appeared plausible enough: a 60-year saga of stability emerging from conflict (post-reformation or post-imperial); of elitist culture turning popular (Shakespeare then, the “classless society” now); and of a revivified economy (driven by globalisation in both cases).
But as we chewed over the choices, a very different era came to mind: not so much new Elizabethans, but neo-Victorians, or at least new late Victorians. If there has been a revival in the last 60 years, it has been of the cosmopolitan London-centric entrepôt of the fin de siècle, not of good old “Merrie England.” The era from the 1870-1914 saw finance triumph over industry as the country’s pre-eminent economic interest, setting the scene for the accelerating inequality and plutocracy that would reach its apogee in the finance-led boom of the Edwardian era. It was the age of “Pont Street Dutch”—when the elaborate red-brick baroque mansion-houses so beloved of the current international financial elite mushroomed throughout Mayfair, Kensington and Chelsea.
Mass immigration underpinned the cosmopolitanism of both eras: of Jews from eastern Europe in the 1890s and 1900s and of former imperial citizens since the 1950s. Both proved socially traumatic and produced xenophobic backlashes, though post-1980s Britain has been rather more successful in integrating diverse ethnic groups. That Britain has undeniably benefitted from this openness is proved by the strikingly high proportion of immigrants of all types on the BBC’s list.
The big difference, of course, is empire. The 1880s and 1890s were the high point of imperialist wars, and Rudyard Kipling exhorted his readers to take up the “white man’s burden” to much middle-class acclaim. British soldiers have certainly fought in several post-imperial wars in the last 60 years, from Malaya in the 1950s and Oman in the 1970s to the Falklands in the 1980s and Afghanistan in the 2000s, but these conflicts have had little cultural resonance—remarkably few on our list were soldiers.
Aristocracy, in contrast, has made a dramatic comeback. David Cameron is not quite as grand as Lord Salisbury, but he is still a…