Prince William and Kate Middleton: a royal wedding in the age of austerity | Jonathan Freedland

It's easy to mock the hysteria of a royal wedding, but state occasions help reveal what kind of country we are

It was an aristocratic novelist who gave us Love in a Cold Climate. Now the royal family are to host a Wedding in the Age of Austerity.

The delight on David Cameron's brightly lit face as he delivered his congratulations to Prince William and Kate Middleton via the press pack outside No 10 today was mainly that of a decent chap glad to celebrate a young couple in love. It might have also included a shot of country set solidarity with Kate, who apparently grew up in a village just a few miles away from his own in west Berkshire and is every bit as Home Counties as he is.

But he would be forgiven if his smile were also that of a politician relieved to be the bearer – for once – of good news, having calculated that a royal wedding would act as handy distraction from the economic gloom and spending cuts that are due to bite in the early months of 2011. He may even see an uptick in his just-launched national happiness index.

At first, media types were trading just such cynical thoughts. But they were soon swept aside as the 24-hour broadcasters went into full hysteria mode, the BBC dispatching a helicopter to provide an unchanging aerial shot of Buckingham Palace and pressing its most senior diplomatic and political correspondents to discuss the upcoming nuptials.

It's easy to knock all that as an over-reaction, but the truth about Britain is that such moments – royal births, deaths and marriages – do have a habit of revealing what kind of country we are. The joining of the girl he calls "Babykins" and the boy she knows as "Big Willie" will be no exception.

First, we got a glimpse of how others see us. ABC's Good Morning America opened with a trumpeted fanfare over pictures of the couple, proof that in the US Britain remains more period drama than real country, a Ruritanian theme park that is forever charming and quaint.

Here, we got a reminder that the UK media remains as fixated on the royals as ever. The photocall and TV interview will inaugurate an unending press obsession, with Middleton's face surely bound for the cover of Hello! and OK! every week from now until the wedding and for years afterwards. The flashbulb lightning that greeted their photo-op anoints her, if only in terms of media interest, as the new Diana.

The day too showed how many British habits have endured. Sexism lives on: the engagement was entirely reported as his, rather than their, decision. The speculation on the dress confirmed that in matters royal, the grammar of the fairytale still applies.

Class matters too. The BBC described Middleton without irony as a "commoner", while we're told Palace hangers-on mocked her self-made parents as vulgarly middle class (as millionaires, they are, economically at least, way outside the middle-class mainstream).

Some felt a royal wedding amid recession, riots and strikes was all a bit 1981, as if the Windsors were taking us on a Life on Mars trip back three decades. Seeing Prince Charles still awkward and constipated in his reaction to an emotional question – irritably spitting out that he was "obviously thrilled" to a reporter's inquiry, then carrying on with a meet-and-greet – suggested we had indeed taken a step back in time.

But the differences between then and now were also apparent. Kate and William lived together as students, a fact that raised fewer eyebrows than it would have done in 1981. In the joint TV interview, William joked that he and his bride share a "dirty sense of humour". One can't have imagined Charles speaking that way and as for the Queen, well. When the future king talked of how he and Kate used to "hang out" together, it was a sign that times had changed.

But there is another shift too. Having seen the fate of three out of the four recent Windsor marriages, few will expect, as they once did, that this story will automatically have a happy ending.

But the couple did look at genuine ease with each other and have had plenty of time together, which Charles and Diana never did.

Even the most hardbitten republican will be wishing them well.


Jonathan Freedland

The GuardianTramp

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