The wedding festivities of Prince William and Kate Middleton on Friday are the most anticipated British nuptials since the 1981 wedding of William's parents, Charles and Diana. In the past 30 years, both the royal family and Britain itself have undergone some dramatic changes.
Compared with Diana, Kate is a radically different royal bride, says Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast. (As the author of The Diana Chronicles, Brown is also a qualified royal watcher.)
"In some ways, William chose her as the un-Diana," Brown tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "Much though he loved his mother, she did provide a great deal of drama, as well as love, in his life. He was really looking for stability."
Unlike Diana and her family's aristocratic pedigree, Kate hails from middle-class roots. She is solid, calm and "as un-drama-like as you can imagine," Brown says.
William and Kate met as students at the University of St. Andrews, when both were 20 years old. Brown says their long romance was a trial period for William, who wanted to be sure that Kate was ready for royal life.
"He did not want ... what happened to his father," Brown says. Engaged at 19 and married at 20, "[Diana] was a bride that hardly knew what she was getting into. ... It was a huge letdown when she realized how disastrous this was going to be for her."
Of course, the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana occurred three decades ago, but Brown points out that there are plenty of similarities between the two eras. "Two-and-a-half million are out of work right now with the budget slashes and all the economic austerity that's happening in England," Brown says. "There were actually the same amount of people exactly out of work at the time of Charles and Diana."
But the recession of 1981 had brighter prospects than the present-day downturn. Oil profits from the North Sea were bringing in crucial revenue, Brown says, and Margaret Thatcher's impending deregulation of the country's financial institutions promised a boom. In the current recession, prosperity is not as certain. "That's a big difference between these two eras," Brown says.
There are striking differences in the little details, too. The royal yacht that ferried Charles and Diana to their honeymoon — along with 220 seamen and 20 officers — is now a museum. And the royal train they traveled on now hardly ever leaves the siding.
"So much of British industry now is owned by foreigners — oil is finite, credit is finite. There's a big difference in the Britain that you're seeing of Kate and William," Brown says.
The great question right now is whether Kate and William will be the last royal couple. It's possible that the monarchy could be abolished, but it really depends on the next 20 years, Brown says. "If William and Kate could come in faster, it would be way better for the monarchy. But Charles is not going to abdicate in any way — he has waited for this for so long," she says.
Brown says the British people do not want to see Camilla, Charles' second wife, as queen. But short of constitutional reorganization, it isn't likely that the monarchy would skip to William and Kate. "It would require Prince Charles to really want to make himself scarce, and he does not want to do that," Brown adds.
Charles is determined to be king, and to have Camilla as his queen. "The question is how patient the British people are going to be when he's king, and the expense and the lack of popularity of Charles meet a head-on collision," she says.
So with potentially decades to wait before they become king and queen, William and Kate will continue to live their lives as usual — although Kate will have a new "job."
"Kate primarily has to do one thing, which is breed — produce a whole bunch of heirs, an heir and a spare, and maybe a couple more," Brown says.
Meanwhile, William is expected to continue his service in the air force.
"I think that they're just going to try and lead a life that's worthy, that's increasing in its charitable presence and show that they are people who care," Brown says. "That's really a very important thing for the monarchy right now: to show it cares. In that sense, that is Diana's legacy."