Queen Elizabeth’s reign began with optimism. The war had ended, the dictators had been defeated and the country looked forward to prosperity. Attlee’s government had introduced irreversible improvements and although the NHS and free secondary education are associated with Labour they were Conservative policies too.
The cheerful mood had been deliberately created by the Festival of Britain and was symbolised in the architecture of the Lansbury Estate, the modernity of the Dome of Discovery and the quirkiness of Roland Emmett’s Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Railway. The watchwords were reconstruction, town planning, full employment and health for all.
With the Festival came the Contemporary style, that tamed British modernism that William Feaver described as “Braced legs, indoor plants, lily-of-the valley sprays of lightbulbs, aluminium lattices, Cotswold-type walling with picture windows, flying staircases, blond wood, the thorn, the spike, the molecule.”
Other symbols were the Royal Festival Hall, the New Towns and the New Universities. The most famous and most fashionable of the new universities was Sussex, designed by Basil Spence, who had worked on the Festival of Britain and had designed the new Coventry Cathedral.
Coventry, a modernist building rising symbolically from the ruins of war, made modern art prominent: Jacob Epstein’s St Michael, Graham Sutherland’s Christ in Glory, stained-glass by John Piper and candlesticks by Hans Coper.
People knowingly called themselves New Elizabethans. New Elizabethans believed in science. They were wowed by Sputnik, the Comet and the Avro Vulcan aircraft. Food manufacturers boasted that their products were made in modern factories and that they had scientific ingredients. There was no Hovis-style nostalgia and no fear of chemicals. The Two Cultures were united in textile designs based on molecular structures and X-ray crystallography. This was Modern England.
Charles begins his reign in a more insecure, doubtful, and self-critical age. A dictator is waging war in Europe. Many people think the active state that made post-war Britain does more harm than good, that science is a conspiracy of experts and that what we thought was progress will kill us.
Charles himself has channelled much of this doubt. His sincere concern about the environment is why many people like him. He ran a company promoting organic food. His hatred of modern architecture is legendary. His style of dress makes him look older than his father.
But every change creates the hope of a better future. The mood of the country is bound to change. Perhaps we will become New Carolingians.