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Princess Diana didn’t change Britain The culture wars exposed by her death remain unresolved

Where are they now? Credit: Anwar Hussein/Getty


September 6, 2022   6 mins

It was one of journalism’s greatest corrections. “We apologise for the Princess Diana page-one headline ‘Di goes sex mad’, which is still on the stands at some locations,” announced the National Enquirer. “It is currently being replaced with a special 72-page tribute issue: ‘A farewell to the Princess we all loved.’”

In its defence, the magazine could point to a multitude of other media outlets that had similarly been caught out by the sudden death of the Princess of Wales on 31 August 1997. And, more than the event itself, caught out by the public response.

Because the week that followed — between the fatal car crash in the early hours of a Sunday morning and the funeral the following Saturday, 25 years today — was an extraordinary moment, a week of all-consuming grief or hysteria (depending on taste), when nothing else seemed to happen, and nothing else mattered. There was only one subject of conversation, certainly in the media: radio phone-in shows experienced record numbers of calls, newspaper sales soared, and rolling news really came into its own.

There were two poles of attraction that week; two households, both alike in dignity. There was Kensington Palace, where Diana had lived. It became the centre of the people’s mourning: flowers costing an estimated £50 million were laid at the gates in a rising (and rotting) tide of tribute. And then there was Balmoral, where the Royal Family, including Prince Charles and his young sons, was on its annual visit. No visible expression of grief was forthcoming from that quarter, and even if that was understandable — after all, two children had just lost their mother and might wish for some privacy — the public was not in an understanding mood.

As the shock of the news began to recede in those days, the sorrow turned to anger, directed at the perceived failure of the royals to lead the national bereavement. “It is as if no one in the Royal Family has a soul,” raged The Sun, anxious to direct attention away from the paparazzi from whom Diana had been fleeing, and on whom the tabloids relied so heavily.

And since this was a time when flags were important to us, the anger focused on a third site: Buckingham Palace, where there was no flag flying at half-mast. The reasoning for this was protocol: only the Royal Standard flew over royal palaces, and then only when the monarch was in residence, and never, ever at half-mast. But that was precisely the sort of inflexible convention that Diana, the rebel daughter of an 8th Earl, had stood against. “I do things differently, because I don’t go by a rule book,” she’d said in her 1995 Panorama interview, “because I lead from the heart not the head.”

That was the division that Diana Week exposed: head vs heart, duty vs feeling, the stiff upper lip vs the trembling pout. The Royal Family, wrote Daily Mirror columnist Tony Parsons, were stuck in the past, “undemonstrative, buttoned up, reluctant to show their emotions in public”, while the multitudes outside Kensington Palace were “very much a part of new Britain – emotional, passionate, willing to show their feelings. Just like Diana herself”. And if the nation was divided, the battle of the flag seemed to show who had the upper hand: on the Thursday, a Union Jack was duly hoisted to half-mast over Buckingham Palace.

There was much speculation that week about the end of the monarchy. Indeed, even before Diana’s death, republicanism had been on the rise. The year had started with an ITV show, Monarchy: The Nation Decides, filmed before a 3,000-strong audience at the NEC in Birmingham (more familiar to viewers as the arena for Gladiators). Less a debate than a forerunner of reality TV, it broke the record for Britain’s biggest ever phone-vote: 2.6 million calls were taken, with a third supporting the abolition of the monarchy.

A more orthodox poll by ICM in mid-August produced the same result: 30% said Britain would be better off without royalty, up from 13% a decade earlier. The upheavals of Diana Week seemed to have accelerated that trend.

What halted the forward march of republicanism was the deployment of Princes William (aged 15) and Harry (12). They were carefully shielded from the media for the first days, but the pressure grew too great. On the Thursday, they appeared before cameras at Balmoral; on Friday they looked at the flowers and tributes outside Buckingham Palace; and on Saturday they walked behind their mother’s coffin in a funeral procession, the broadcast of which attracted a near-record of 32.1 million viewers — just shy of the 1966 World Cup Final. And the country felt better for having wept over the poor motherless mites. A poll by MORI immediately after the funeral showed just 18% in support of Britain becoming a republic.

It was, though few were prepared to say so, a bit ugly. A large part of Diana’s appeal had been her identification with the vulnerable. “I understand people’s suffering, people’s pain,” she’d said, in a leaked phone conversation. “It’s not only AIDS; it’s anyone who suffers. I can smell them a mile away.” Now, in her name — and in the interests of showing that we were a kinder, gentler nation — we demanded that her children parade their suffering on our behalf.

Then came the comedown. On Sunday there was nothing to do or to see, but still three million people found their way to the royal parks in London, seemingly reluctant to let go of the sense of a shared experience. And on Monday there began the process of forgetting just how bizarre that week had been, the sheer enormity of the public display of emotion, the “Latin American peasant hagiolatry”, as Boris Johnson called it.

“We live in an age where feminism is a fact,” concluded Johnson, “where giving vent to emotion in public wins votes.” And that seemed to be the lesson. Tony Blair, who’d been elected just four months earlier, was the big winner of the week. He was convinced that his mantra of “New Labour New Britain” was in tune with the country that Diana symbolised. “In temperament and time, in the mood she engendered and which we represented, there was a perfect fit,” he wrote in his memoirs. And he might have been right; in the aftermath of her death, the opinion polls showed him with an approval rating of 93%, the highest ever recorded for a prime minister.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, were nowhere. Already reeling from their worst election defeat since 1906, they simply couldn’t fathom the mass mourning at all. “I walked through the crowds,” reflected one Tory ex-cabinet minister, “and realised this was no longer a country I truly understand.” In due course, the party decided to put that right with the election as leader of David Cameron, a man who, as a 14-year-old, had camped out on the Mall to witness the wedding procession of Charles and Diana. The assumption was that Diana had won. We’d finally shed the Victorian values championed by Margaret Thatcher. We were all emotionally literate now.

Except that it doesn’t really feel like it. The clash of values that made such an impact in 1997 hasn’t been resolved one way or the other. It’s become more intense, more bitter, so that we now talk of a culture war, a conflict in which the two sides are pretty much the same as they were then. It’s still about heart and head, the subjective vs the pragmatic. The injunction to “be kind” still comes with an element of emotional bullying, and those who dissent are still, as John Redwood wrote of Diana Week, “well advised to keep their thoughts to themselves given the surge of public sentiment”.

And since this is Britain, the Royal Family is expected to play its part. So Harry is the champion of the Kensington Palace tendency, albeit transplanted to California. He’s prepared to tell anyone who’ll listen about his “genetic pain and suffering” and about his wife’s “lived experience”, in terms more Spencer than Windsor. (“I’ve never discussed private matters and I don’t think the Queen has either,” snapped Prince Philip, back when Diana was still alive.) Harry is not reluctant to share his truths. But every time he does so, he comes under increasingly heavy fire, and sheds more support. A YouGov poll in May this year showed just 32% seeing him in a positive light; even among those aged 18 to 24 — supposedly his constituency — this only rose to 42%.

William, on the other hand, is the heir to Balmoral, though with better PR advisors. There’s no radical departure from tradition here, just a steady adaptation. And the result is that he’s polling second only to the Queen as the most popular royal, with his wife in third place. The month after the funeral, the Queen mused: “I sometimes sense that the world is changing almost too fast for its inhabitants, at least for us older ones.” But she’s still with us, still quietly adapting.

Over the last 25 years, the noise from those rolling news channels, amplified by social media, has given the impression that society is in a state of frenzied change. Technology may be, but human beings are not. There is a generational evolution, as there always is, but what appeared to be a major step-change in 1997 was deceptive. Diana Week turned out to be an exception, not the making of a new rule. “Papa doesn’t embarrass me,” William was quoted as saying in 1995. “Mama does.”


Alwyn W. Turner is a cultural and political historian.

AlwynTurner

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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

I’m American and so my opinions on this subject are automatically suspect, but I never saw the attraction or significance of Diana.
I was sorry for both Diana and Charles because they were painfully mismatched as a couple. But of the two, I believe Diana was much more manipulative. When their marriage started to go south, Charles played his corner by following the advice of his advisors. But he was clumsy and transparent. Diana, on the other hand, was a born actress. I still remember the shows of over-the-top emotion (was the young Meghan Markle taking notes?) followed by a knowing smirk at the cameras. She played up her alleged suffering and victimhood but she was almost as privileged as Charles.
The author of the current article seeks to draw a direct line between her emotional approach to life, royal life in particular, and the modern culture wars. It’s stiff upper lip versus trembling pout, as the author nicely puts it. Was Diana really that significant a personality? She was certainly a cultural fad twenty five years ago, but an icon? Mother of the Culture Wars? I don’t think so. The modern culture wars are about much more than unselfconscious displays of emotion or even the cult of victimhood.

Phil Rees
Phil Rees
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Yes, I came away from reading the article thinking the author really doesn’t understand the modern culture wars at all.

pessimist extremus
pessimist extremus
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I’m not British either and it’s a relief to see someone ‘have doubts’. Actually, was she that good of a mother even? She surely loved her boys, but… some things she did had horrible impact on them. The interview, for sure. Had she lived, who knows? Also, it’s almost depressing to see the obligatory “Harry, having lost his Mother…” or that he’s trying to make his mother proud every day. People lose their loved ones and have to move on and manage. Every one of us. Life can be hard in various ways.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

You may be an American, but your Diana-scepticism has always been pretty well represented in the UK. To read our news and media you might be forgiven for concluding that all Britons are emotionally incontinent fools where she was concerned, but actually a great many people felt little for her, despised the manner in which she abused the institutional reticence of the Royal Family by speaking out against it and, while regarding her death as a private tragedy, felt no personal connection with it at all.

I am not alone in in the UK in being mystified why so many people were personally wounded by her death: they did not know her and she would not have wanted to know them, had she met them. In particular I have always thought the way the media attacked the Queen herself for refusing to join in the public weepfest was despicable.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Riordan
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  John Riordan

But the Royal Family and their advisors, WERE largely responsible for the whole mess in the first place, in setting up an obviously loveless marriage mainly on the basis that Diana was a virgin!

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The ‘old guard’ were in fact largely at fault in that whole tragi-comic soap opera, because of the absurd and anachronistic insistence that Charles marry a virgin, a fact that is rarely commented on by anyone. Charles had always loved Camilla, and she became divorced the natural order would have been for them to marry, after a decent interval. But no, we had Diana, perceived as an easily influenced and rather naïve young woman, rather cynically selected, foisted on Charles and the ensuing loveless arranged marriage. Of course the media and public were entirely complicit in this, preferring the glamorous ‘fairy tale princess’ over boring old frumpy Camilla. But with that much more sensible alternative course, then obviously no William or Harry, Catherine or Meghan, and we are now probably too invested in all that drama to imagine any other alternative.

Diana as a person undoubtedly did a tremendous deal of good, most obviously where she was a pioneer in treating AIDS patients with dignity and compassion – she didn’t have too much competition at the time. But of course, she was certainly not averse to fighting her corner using manipulative means in the three cornered marriage both she and Charles were unhappily trapped in.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

“The injunction to “be kind” still comes with an element of emotional bullying, and those who dissent are still, as John Redwood wrote of Diana Week, ‘well advised to keep their thoughts to themselves given the surge of public sentiment'”.
And the result is politics driven by the initial emotional reaction to any given situation which is difficult to balance out because those with a more rational and considered temperament are wont to stay silent and avoid the onslaught that inevitably happens when you articulate a divergent opinion to the keening mob.
The slow and humiliating fall of Harry (I refuse to call him Prince and have no sympathy with him anymore) is proof that – while having a 100% stuff upper lip at the expense of emotional intelligence is a damaging and cruel way to live – all of this “my truth” claptrap is stopping us from getting stuff done. When we’re facing multiple pan-societal crises, then you need to THINK and not dissolve into a whinging, whining heap at the first opportunity.
Prince William gets it right. He seems to have learned both from his mother and – I’ll admit it through gritted teeth – his sister-in-law that a bit (I repeat: a BIT) of touchy-feeliness and emotion is absolutely necessary for good, convincing leadership. On the other hand, he’s also capable of being absolutely rational in his assessment of situations and brutal in his choices when required (wasn’t there some kind of “him or me” intervention about Prince Andrew recently with the Garter ceremony-thingy?). In that, he is a Windsor through and through. If the monarchy hasn’t been abolished by then, he will be a great king.
That is why I feel that good leadership is going to spring from the pool of geriatric millennials (i.e. those with a 1980-1985 vintage). We were brought up being impressed with the notion that “pull yourself together” is often the best advice…but know that neglecting feelings is just going to come back and bite you badly at a later point, so talking about them is sometimes (I repeat: SOMETIMES) a Very Good Thing.

Last edited 1 year ago by Katharine Eyre
Carmel Shortall
Carmel Shortall
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

He’s with the WEF isn’t he?

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

I do remember a couple of days after Diana’s death soemone saying to me how terrible this was and how devestated she felt. She then asked me how I felt and I said that it was sad that a young woman was killed leaving two young sons, but I felt no different from what I would have felt if I had heard the same about a young mother who lived a couple of streets away from me; she looked at me, rather repulsed, and then suddenly said that she wasn’t actually that upset. I think that I had given her permission to be truthful about how she felt; it made me wonder how many others were somehow emotionally signalling how empathetic they were rather than genuinely feeling any strong emotions.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
1 year ago

I remember feeling kind of obliged to cry and then quite awkward when the tears didn’t spring forth. Until Elton John played at her funeral and then I did actually cry…but probably more because Candle in the Wind makes me well up anyway than for Diana.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I thought Elton sung ” Please let your son go down on me”?

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
1 year ago

I went to Alton Towers on the day of her funeral and it was awesome! Barely any queues for the rides. I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life!
It was tragic that two boys were left without a mother, but I never bought into the whole Diane worship. Although neither did I buy into the #be kind Caroline Flack guff. Amazing how blinded people can be by a pretty face!

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
1 year ago

I can’t imagine worse advice than throwing away your brain and letting emotions rule.

John Riordan
John Riordan
1 year ago
Reply to  Bryan Dale

An awful lot of people seem to be taking this advice though, it has to be said.

Sam Sky
Sam Sky
1 year ago

I am reminded distinctly – having seen this clip in some compilation somewhere or other – by how Christopher Hitchens was berated by “mourners” in Kensington Palace garden when being interviewed by Canadian news:
https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2177471186
This encounter encapsulates perfectly to me the pig-eyed idiocy of the average Diana idolator of that time.

Last edited 1 year ago by Sam Sky
Martin Adams
Martin Adams
1 year ago
Reply to  Sam Sky

Thank you. I had forgotten that priceless encounter. Idolator is the right word, for saints are made via acclamation, and the entire episode demonstrates how deeply human beings need something to worship.

Pabs Dabs
Pabs Dabs
1 year ago
Reply to  Sam Sky

‘You are about as smart as you look’. The carefully manicured urbane charm persona of CH descends into witless, sneering superiority. Yuk!