Of the two big set-piece occasions taking place in the Palace of Westminster this week, the Queen’s March 20 address to both Houses of Parliament was always bound to outshine the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s unveiling the following day of the U.K. budget. The monarch also had something to unveil—a stained glass window paid for by MPs and members of the House of Lords and commissioned by them to celebrate her 60th year on the throne. The jewel-bright confection by British glass artist John Reyntiens has been designed for installation in Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the parliamentary complex and venue for the Queen’s speech. The vaulted structure withstood a fierce fire that engulfed the rest of Parliament in 1834, survived the Blitz and remained standing after a bomb laid by Irish Republicans in 1974. That blast blew out the panes the new window, temporarily displayed on trestles, will replace.
Britain’s monarchy, like Westminster Hall, has weathered centuries and existential threats. The resilience and longevity of its current head was thrown into sharp relief by the audience assembled there to hear her: a mélange of the once-famous and formerly-powerful, the current establishment and those aiming to join its ranks. Rowan Williams, who on March 16 announced that he’ll stand down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of 2012, sat close to the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, both seen as contenders to replace him as the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat Deputy Nick Clegg, whose decision to go into coalition with each other secured those jobs but proved so unpopular within their own parties that it may yet turn out to have killed their chances of retaining them after the next election, bookended Ed Miliband, who won the Labour leadership by defeating the favorite, his own brother. Former Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, whose intense rivalry undermined both men’s achievements, were buffered only by Labour-supporting Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, a Conservative whose trajectory from the right of his party to its most liberal wing has alienated many of his colleagues. It fell to Bercow to give words of welcome to the Queen and he reflected on the changes Britain has seen since she ascended the throne.
You have moved with the times and allowed the times to move around the rest of society,” said Bercow. “This is a different Britain from 1952 but not one detached from then. We are in so many ways a much bigger, brighter and better United Kingdom. This is a land where men and women today are equal under the law and where Your people are respected, regardless of how they live, how they look or how they love. This is a nation of many races, faiths and customs, now beginning to be reflected in Parliament. All this progress has occurred during Your reign. You have become, to many of us, a kaleidoscope Queen of a kaleidoscope country in a kaleidoscope Commonwealth.
To Bercow, the first Jewish Speaker, those sentiments may resonate. If Miliband achieves his ambition to become Prime Minister, he will be only the country’s second incumbent of Downing Street born to Jewish parents. (The first, 19th century two-time Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, converted to Anglicanism aged 12.) If Sentamu succeeds in succeeding Rowan Williams, he’ll be the first black Archbishop of Canterbury.
But stand back from this kaleidoscope and the picture is not one of vibrancy but monochrome consistency. A study of the educational background of MPs, conducted just after the 2010 general election by the Sutton Trust, an organization promoting social mobility, established that over a third had attended independent schools compared to the 7% of the British public fortunate enough to escape the uncertain standards offered by a state education. Twenty MPs, including the Prime Minister and 11 of his ministers, had been pupils at the most elite of all British schools, Eton College. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg and a conspicuous number of their lieutenants graduated from Oxford (Cameron and Miliband) or Cambridge (Clegg), Britain’s famously storied universities. That picture is replicated across the public and private sectors. The best way to do well in Britain remains to be well born.
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The Queen, who exemplifies this trend, is also a figure of national unity, commanding the steady support of some three-quarters of all Britons. “We are reminded here of our past, of the continuity of our national story and the virtues of resilience, ingenuity and tolerance which created it,” she told her audience in Westminster Hall, and she spoke as the embodiment of that continuity and an avatar of resilience. She does represent change too, but change so glacial as to be almost imperceptible.
Britain’s monarchy has endured thanks to a process of slow, quiet adaptation. That’s an aspiration many Conservative politicians find immensely appealing, though they find it hard to reconcile with their passion for reducing the size of the state sector. Nothing is sacred in the quest to truffle out efficiency savings, not even the royals, who last year agreed to a new system of financing that is set to cut their cost to the taxpayer and see a drop in royal revenues. Much more controversial is the coalition’s bill to reform Britain’s National Health Service that was finally passed by the House of Lords on March 19 only for MPs to force a Commons debate immediately after the Queen’s visit.
A wide strain of the Lib Dem grassroots and a number of the party’s MPs oppose the legislation. Chancellor George Osborne’s 21 March Budget address threatens to expose further rifts between the coalition partners. He has pledged to help low and middle earners. His Lib Dem colleagues have pushed for measures to prove their adherence to the fairness agenda they trumpeted in their election manifesto. Yet there are rumors that Osborne will also scrap the 50 pence top tax rate levied on earners over £150,000 per annum (approx $238,000), introduced in 2010 by the previous Labour administration. Treasury sources insist other measures and levies will increase the overall tax burden of the rich.
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The question isn’t just how divisive this Budget may prove within the coalition. A widespread sense that the mass of Britons are suffering while a small elite sails on unperturbed animates the British offshoots of the Occupy movement and other protest organizations and may have helped fuel last summer’s riots. But the perception is by no means confined to activists and anarchists. There are signs that the silent majority who express their political views through the ballot box—or by not bothering to turn up to vote at all—are increasingly pessimistic about the economy, about the future, about the opportunities for ordinary folk to rise to the top in modern Britain. In truth, they have long had grounds for pessimism on the last of these, but boom times obscured the reality. What is striking about Britain is not how much has changed during the Queen’s long reign, but how little.
Catherine Mayer is TIME Europe Editor. Find her on Twitter at @Catherine_Mayer or on Facebook at Facebook/Amortality-the-Pleasures-and-Perils-of-Living-Agelessly . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook <http://www.facebook.com/time”>Facebook> page and on Twitter at @TIMEWorld.