Chapter Three - British Institutions

Chapter 3

British Institutions


This chapter looks at a few parts of British life which in some ways characterise the British people.  Although this list is by no means exhaustive and highly subjective, it represents a snapshot into life on this small island.


The Monarchy


The present royal family, The House of Windsor, has seen more than its fair share of scandal and intrigue over the past 100 years.  The present Queens great grandmother, Queen Victoria, ruled over arguably, Britain's golden age.  During her reign, industrialisation took hold, spurred on by British industrial innovation, making the country the wealthiest in the world.  Railways spanned the length and breadth of the country, allowing access to long distance travel for the first time, a fact not lost on the monarch, who had the rail network extended to reach her Scottish country house, Balmoral.  Following the death of her beloved Albert, Victoria became a virtual recluse for a decade.


The Edwardian era which followed Victoria’s reign came to an abrupt end in 1936 when the present Queen’s uncle, Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry the love of his life, American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.  This forced his brother George to become king, a role for which he was unprepared and unsuited.  A poor public speaker affected by a stammer, George had looked forward to a life of royal obscurity with his wife Elizabeth and his two daughters, Elizabeth and Margaret, but instead found himself at the helm of a nation wracked by war.  The Windsors remained in London during the blitz, a fact which has endeared them to a generation who fought with them while Britain was at war with Germany.


Elizabeth was groomed to be Queen and took her duties, perhaps earlier than expected, in 1953 at the young age of 26.  Elizabeth married her distant cousin, Prince Phillip of Greece, and the two have become associated as part of the fabric of post war Britain.


The Queen has four children (in order of age) Charles, Anne, Andrew and Edward and one sister (Margaret, 1930-2002).  The royal family have not succeeded in pursuing long marriages, with the exception of Edward and the Queen herself, they have all divorced.


In 2002 the Queen lost two of her closest family.  Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister died as a result of a stroke and complications from an earlier accident.  Margaret wished to marry her first love, Group Captain Peter Townsend, but was told in no uncertain terms, by the family and the government, that this would not be allowed, as he was divorced.  She went on to marry Anthony Armstrong Jones, a fashionable London photographer who became Lord Snowden.  Together they became one of the superstar couples of the 1960’s, but their marriage was dogged by scandal and rumours of infidelity.  They divorced in 1978 after nearly a decade of living virtually separate lives.  The Queen had a close, if not overtly supportive relationship with her younger, glamorous sister, but it was her relationship with her mother that was one of the most important in her life.  Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, or Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother as her title became after her daughters’ accession to the throne, was a great influence on the Queen and her children.  Her counsel and advice was closely sought and her relationships with her grandchildren were very important to them.  It was the Queen Mother who brokered Charles’ marriage to Lady Diana Spencer.  The Queen Mother died in 2002.


Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in spectacular fashion in 1981.  Immediately Diana was catapulted into the global media spotlight, and the pressures that this placed on the royal couple, led to their eventual and acrimonious divorce in 1995.  Accusations of infidelities on both sides were made public, when Diana fired the first salvo in what became a saga of tit-for-tat revelations, by appearing on the BBC news show Panorama, and admitting to her affair with cavalry officer James Hewitt.  Charles responded with his television interview with David Dimbleby (part of a British journalist family dynasty) admitting to his fifteen year relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles.  Diana then gave tacit  agreement to the publication of the Andrew Morton book “Diana Her True Story” in which the inner workings and machiavellian nature of the royal family were laid bare.  The family were outraged by this public washing of their dirty laundry and Diana was ostracised.  Diana continued to eclipse the rest of the family through her glamour and work to have landmines internationally banned.


The death of Diana Princess of Wales on the 31st of August 1997 in a car crash in Paris, was a landmark in revealing how the British people feel about the monarchy.  The response from the royal family to her death was perceived as cold, and the failure of the Queen to come from Balmoral to the capital, where tens of thousands of people congregated to mourn the “People’s Princess” was seen as a grave misjudgement.


Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005 and the British people seem, by and large to have accepted her presence in the royal family.  Whether Camilla will ever be Queen when Charles becomes King is debatable.  It is more likely that she will assume a similar role to that of Prince Phillip as that of consort to the monarch.


Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, married Sarah Ferguson in another extravagant royal wedding in 1986, but their marriage also dissolved and they were finally divorced in 1996.  Andrew was keen to pursue his military career in the Royal Navy, and the strains placed on Sarah Ferguson were to prove too much.  Opening their home to the pages of celebrity magazine, “Hello!” was seen by the family as unforgivable vulgar and it seems that the curse of “Hello!” (couples pictured showing their happiness in their new home invariable divorce within two years) claimed a further victim.  Sarah was not liked by the tabloids and she was vilified for her weight, her dress sense and eventually for her infidelities.  In 1992, paparazzi pictures of her on holiday with Texan financier Johnny Brian were to prove too much for the family.  The infamous “Toe Sucking” pictures resulted in Sarah being totally ostracised by the family.  No longer was she invited to Balmoral to spend Christmas with the family.  While her daughters were invited to attend, Sarah was left alone, in a lodge on the estate.  Today Andrew and Sarah still live in the same house when they are together with their daughters and have a famously amicable relationship.


Princess Anne, The Princess Royal, married for the first time in 1973.  Anne has been a passionate and talented equine competitor, competing at Olympic level with the British Eventing team.  It was through her riding that she met Captain Mark Phillips, whom she later married.  A kidnap attempt was made on Princess Anne in 1974 and although she was unhurt, her personal protection officer was shot and killed.  Anne remains one of the most admired members of the royal family, largely due to her straight forward style and tireless work on behalf of the Save the Children fund.  Anne has managed to avoid any public scandal in her private life and amicably divorced Captain Mark Phillips in 1992, marrying Tim Lawrence, a commodore in the Royal Navy in December of the same year.


The youngest of the Queens’ sons, Prince Edward, married Sophie Rhys Jones in 1999 and appears to have the most successful marriage of any of his siblings.  The couple keep a low profile and are rarely in the press.  Initially criticised for using their royal status to forward their respective business careers in PR and TV production, they have now withdrawn from any of their commercial interests.


The marriages of Princes’ William and Harry to Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle respectively and the Queens great grandchildren have reignited global fascination with the Royal Family as has the hugely successful Netflix series, The Crown.





Harrods department store opened in its present position in Brompton Road, Knightsbridge in 1846.  Owned by the Harrod family until its take over by the House of Fraser group in 1959, London’s most famous store is now owned by Qatar holdings having been sold in  2010 by controversial tycoon Mohammed Al Fayed.


Harrods has been the target of terrorism on three occasions.  The first of these was on December 15th 1974, when an incendiary bomb started a serious fire the first floor, but the most serious was on December 17th 1983, when a massive car bomb ripped through four stories, killing six people and wounding ninety.  Despite the damage, Harrods opened for business three days later.


Harrods has five acres of floor space arranged over five stories, and sells virtually everything, its motto being, Omnia Omnibus Ubique—All Things for All People, Everywhere.  Its magnificent food halls are grade II listed, with some truly fantastic Victorian tiling.  However, it would be highly unlikely to find many Londoners shopping in the store, with the exception of in the food halls.  Harrods is as much of a London tourist attraction as the London Eye and the British Museum.  It is worth visiting for the Egyptian Staircase, an extravagant (some would say tasteless) creation on solid marble and gold.  The top of the staircase houses a memorial to Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed, Mohammed Al Fayed’s son and Diana’s lover who was also killed in the car accident in Paris.  Mohammed Al Fayed continues to press for a public inquiry into the death of his son and the Princess as he is convinced of a massive conspiracy covering up their murder.





The Season


The Season is the term given to a series of events that mark the highlights of the British social calendar.  The Season includes a variety of events and functions traditionally popular with the upper classes, but is today as much of a corporate entertainment opportunity as it is the centre of the social scene.  Traditionally the season was the time when influential families would introduce their offspring to the social scene, in the hope of creating a suitable match with another influential family.  Debutantes, as they were known, would have their pictures published in the fashionable press of the day, and the antics of the Debs would be closely followed by the gossip columnists.  Today, many of the events are dominated by corporate entertaining, but The Season still holds an important place in the life of Britain.


Henley Royal Regatta


Henley Regatta is held over five days across the first weekend in July and marks one of the most traditional events of the season.  Held in the Oxfordshire town of Henley-on-Thames, in reality the regatta is one of the most important dates in the worldwide rowing calendar, but in practice is enjoyed by a very large number of guests who seldom watch a race during the entire event.  The regatta has been staged every year since 1839 and was given the Royal tag in 1851 when Prince Albert became patron of the event.  Since his death, every reigning monarch has agreed to be patron.  The Stewards Enclosure is where the rich and influential can be found during the regatta and is open to members of the governing body, the Leander Club and their guests only.  Competition for tickets is fierce and Stewards is known for the strict enforcement of its dress codes.  Many a famous starlet has been turned away for a skirt too short and even royalty have been asked to put on a tie.  As a result of the difficulty of getting a place in the Stewards enclosure, it remains exclusive and un-corporate.  The corporate tents tend to be further down the course.


Royal Ascot


One of the most important events in the equestrian calendar, Royal Ascot is also one of the world’s most famous race meetings.  Dating back to 1711, Ascot attracts over 300,000 visitors and is often more known for the coverage of the ladies attire than it is for the racing.  Royal Ascot is usually held the week before Henley Regatta.  The movers and shakers can be found in The Royal Enclosure which is restricted only insofar as people must have applied in advance and new applicants must be sponsored by existing Royal Enclosure badge holders who have attended the Royal Meeting on at least four occasions.  Royal Ascot is a far more democratic event, with tickets for the public enclosures starting from as little as £12.  Ladies day at Ascot is famous for some fantastic fashion and is viewed as one of the most important days of the event.  Mrs Gertrude Shilling, known as the Ascot Mascot, was a woman whose hats were guaranteed to draw gasps of admiration.  Milliner David Shilling, made his career designing hats for his mother to showcase at Ascot, the first of which he designed at the age of twelve.  When Mrs Shilling died in 1999, the National Horse Racing Museum asked David if they could set up a tribute to his mother, and today that has evolved into an exhibition at Shambellie House. Twenty outfits are on display, accompanied by photographs of Mrs Shilling wearing them at Ascot.


The Chelsea Flower Show


One of the first events of the social season, the Chelsea Flower Show is held in the last week of May.  Every year, over five days, the grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea are transformed into the largest flower show in the country.  Tickets for the preview show are highly sought after as the public days can be extremely busy.  The Queen almost always visits the show on the Prize giving day.  The Gold medals for garden design are very prestigious and the exhibition gardens can be quite outstanding.




Britain is a true poly-culture, with nearly 12% of the population coming from ethnic groups.  Currently 8.3% of the population was born overseas.  In the period immediately following the second world war, British governments encouraged citizens of Commonwealth countries to settle in the UK and provide a workforce which could keep up with the post war economic boom.  The first large numbers of people to settle were the Polish immigrants of the late 1940’s.  157,000 Poles moved to the UK, mainly as a result of good relations fostered during the war, but it soon became clear that the country needed more people and the first groups of people from the West Indies were next to arrive.  During the 1960’s and 70’s tens of thousands emigrated to Britain from India and Pakistan.  As immigration into towns and cities across the UK took place, so grew resentment and racial prejudice, and it was in order to counter these negative aspects of immigration, that successive governments embraced new policies leading towards multi culturalism.


Multi-culturalism in this context refers to policies which promote diversity within British  society.  In Britain, it has been a long held belief that welcoming people into the country should not also carry with it a requirement for those people to adopt a uniquely British lifestyle.  Consequently, government policy has promoted cultural uniqueness and has supported the rights of ethnic groups to retain their own cultural background.  This is evident in many aspects of British life, but is perhaps best exemplified within the state education system.  Multi-faith schools are an integral part of state educational provision and in most large city boroughs it is not uncommon for all religions to have their own schools.  Although the state religion is Church of England, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish schools exist side by side.


The values of multi culturalism are enshrined in legislation and monitored by government sponsored watchdog bodies.  The Commission for Racial Equality works closely with the government to draft legislation and keep social policy up to date.  Vast areas of administrative law in the UK are affected by multi culturalism and rights are protected in the realms of housing, social security and health systems.  Social services in the UK are very conscious of issues of culture and operating policies are influenced by anti-discriminatory practice.


However, the dream of a multi cultural Britain, free of racism is far from a reality.  In July 2005, bombings on the London underground by British Muslim citizens forced a re-evaluation of the success of multi-culturalism as a social philosophy.  For the first time, the championing of diversity has been questioned at a government level and some hard questions are now being asked.  During the immediate aftermath of the London Bombings, the British media looked at other European models of immigration.  France has always adopted a totally different philosophy regarding immigrants.  Where Britain has championed diversity, France has encouraged the adoption of French values, language and cultural norms.  This was briefly seen as a better model, to that of the British one which has promoted separate communities to develop within the country.  However, it became all too apparent that the French model has faired no better, during the riots in French cities in November 2005.  For the first time, France was faced with the reality that the policy of promoting French ideals had failed, and communities had become ethinically separate, but with none of the protection and enshrined rights of those in the UK.


Where Britain goes from here with the policy of multi culturalism is unsure, but the feared backlash over the 7/7 bombings never materialised and proved once again, what a tolerant culture the British have.  The UK faces some hard decisions and needs to look very carefully at its identity as a multi cultural nation.  Much is being written in the press about British immigration policy, particularly with regard to asylum seekers, an issue which polarises  public opinion.   


The 2016 referendum resulting in Britain leaving the EU has once again highlighted the issue of immigration and it seems the country has become a less welcoming place in the past years.  The great uncertainty over free movement of EU citizens in and out of the country has placed hundreds of thousands of immigrants in a position of limbo until the issues are resolved.



Useful Links


Wars of the Windsors – Pickett, Prince and Prior - Mainstream Publishing


The Monarchy – David Starkey – Chatto and Windus


Behind the Scenes at Harrods – Cameron and Bennet – Andre Duetsch Ltd


Chelsea; The Greatest Flower Show on Earth – Geddes Brown – Dorling Kindersley


Cambridge Cultural History of Britain – Ford – Cambridge University Press


The Crown - Netflix

British Institutions