As dazzling, glittering and medievalistically splendid as the coronation was sixty years ago today, what I most admire about this time, about the phrase "Be proud of Britain on this day, Coronation day," was what they meant when they said "Britain". For Britain in those days included not just the close-knit countries of England, Scotland and Wales but also the intimately associated settler societies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Indeed, Britain was not really an island nation at all, but rather a global conglomeration of nations that spanned the British world. The central concept underlying this shared Britishness was not national identity, but supranational allegiance.
And I'm not talking about the hoary British Empire here either, but something far more enlightening. With the successful transmutation from imperialism to free association, for one brief shining moment in the early 1950s we seemed to be progressing into a worldwide family of co-equal nations, a kind of post-imperial united kingdoms. How else to explain the jubilant news that when New Zealand’s Edmund Hillary and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Everest, the first men in recorded history to do so, that Churchill hailed their pinnacle triumph as a “memorable British achievement.” How else to explain the reaction of New Zealand’s prime minister, Sidney Holland, who declared how proud he was that an “Englishman” had been the first to climb the world’s highest mountain. It was the high watermark of a common spirit embracing many nations - one based not on subordination but fraternal free will.
When introducing the Royal Titles Bill to the Australian House of Representatives in 1953 prior to the coronation, Prime Minister Robert Menzies spoke of the British monarch as passing on “a Crown that will always be the sign and proof that, wherever we may be in the world, we are one people.” And, by one people, he meant the British people.
The classically brilliant Enoch Powell made a similar avowal when speaking on the Royal Titles Bill in the UK Parliament in March 1953. He still asserted that the Commonwealth of Nations remained a single British kingdom, whose far-flung subjects still roamed freely under the all-inclusive unity and sovereignty of the Royal Crown: “Within this unity of the realm achieved by the Acts of Union there grew up the British Empire; and the unity of that Empire was equivalent to the unity of that realm. It was a unit because it had one Sovereign. There was one Sovereign; one realm. In the course of constitutional development, indeed, the Sovereign began to govern different parts of that realm upon the advice of different Ministers; but that in itself did not constitute a division of the realm. On the contrary, despite the fact that he or she ruled his or her Dominions on the advice of different Ministers, the unity of the whole was essentially preserved by the unity of the Crown and the one Kingdom.”
Interestingly, this emphatic view of unity under the Crown continued to be shared at the highest levels in Canada, even by a French-Canadian prime minister. Speaking on the Royal Titles Bill in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent was at pains to downplay the innovation of a nationally distinctive Crown by emphasising its absolute indivisibility with that of Great Britain: “Her Majesty is now Queen of Canada, but she is the Queen of Canada because she is Queen of the United Kingdom and because the people of Canada are happy to recognize as their Sovereign the person who is Sovereign of the United Kingdom. It is not a separate office … it is the Sovereign who is recognised as the Sovereign of the United Kingdom who is our Sovereign.”
Indeed, although the Crown’s divisibility came to be expressly recognised at this time through passage of separate Royal Style and Title Acts by each of the parliaments of the former dominions, it was widely assumed that the old Commonwealth would continue to flourish as a single community linked by mutual allegiance to the British sovereign. Politically independent but fraternally united, the Crown Commonwealth had evolved to retain a harmonious, even idealised state of existence, insofar as its globally scattered members could freely pursue and advance their national interests, yet loosely cohere as a like-minded geopolitical power.
Of course, all this hope and optimism of a united and nationally-trascendent monarchy and Crown Commonwealth came crashing down with the disastrously bungled Suez Crisis that divided the Commonwealth and sent each on their separate ways. But if you ask me what do I admire most about the euphoria and spirit of the "New Elizabethan Age," this would be it. Happy 60th Coronation.