Megan wonders why, ten years on, Princess Diana is back on the front pages. The simplest answer, natch, is grubby: she still sells. No British paper has been more Diana-obsessed this past decade than the once-great Daily Express, but despite the sardonic ribbing it receives from the rest of the British press corps every time it trots out another "Diana’s Ghost seen at Highgrove" nonsense, it sells, I understand, an extra 30-40,000 copies. Something similar must be true in other countries; indeed some of the most fanatical Diana-adorers I’ve met have been American. Maybe many women still do secretly wish they could be a Princess. Remember that years before the Royal soap opera developed its more compelling storylines, her "fairytale" wedding to Charles was a monster television hit around the world.
More importantly, however, it’s become clear (to me at any rate) that Diana’s death, however tawdry it was in its details, has proved more useful than not. That sounds callous, I know, but there you have it. Her death, though undoubtedly awful for her sons and friends, has proved useful in other respects. This does not mean I think she was murdered by MI6.
Nonetheless, by the time of her death Diana was proving a liability. That her stardom so far outshone the rest of the Royal Family might have been acceptable had se not also – understandably – been determined to escape her gilded cage. As it was she risked doing untold damage to the institution of monarchy: while she lived Charles could never be rehabilitated, could probably never marry Camilla Parker-Bowles, and would always be subjected to questions about the succession. Diana herself would have been happy to tell friendly reporters that she thought the crown should skip Charles and pass to William. But once you set that sort of precedent, the entire institution – and everything about it – becomes open to question. It’s not supposed to work like that. If one takes the (possibly old-fashioned) view that the institution is more important than any individual – no matter how beautiful – then I can’t see how, ten years on, one cannot be aware of the upside to Diana’s absence. She was a dangerous, unpredictable agent who could, if she chose, do untold damage (and the capriciousness of her will ought not to be forgotten) to an institution that needs to run on quiet predictability and continuity.
Diana’s death also forced the Windsors to acknowledge that Britain had changed. The mawkish, indulgent, sentimentality of the week after Diana’s death was not as new or as continental a development as it seemed at the time (the Victorians, for instance, were equally sentimental) but the sneering, bullying tone of the tabloids encouraged a ghastly weak-kneed narcissism on the part of the mourners holding their vigils outside Buckingham Palace. The Windsors were caught out by this and revealed to be desperately out of touch. One cannot blame them if they wished, witnessing this desperate spectacle, to remain at Balmoral. Nonetheless, the "Your People Are Hurting Ma’am: Do Something" tone of the tabloids proved useful in the end: it reminded the Windsors that no matter what the constitutional lawyers say, real sovereignty rests with the people. Her Majesty rules at the pleasure of the people and, consequently, of parliament. Her legitimacy – and that of her heirs – is conditional upon their willingness to meet the public half way. We agree to their rule (in part because the alternatives, more rational though they might be, are more trouble than they are worth as matters currently stand), in return for their dedication to public service.
Remember that in the days after Diana’s death people questioned whether the institution of monarchy could survive. Yet it has and, in fact, has flourished since Diana died. The idea of republican Britain is less popular than it was a decade ago. Politicians have noticed this: it’s significant that Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP, has ditched his party’s republicanism, making it clear that the Queen would remain head of state of an independent Scotland.
Other factors have played a part in this Royal rehabilitation of course. The deaths of Princess Margaret and, in particular, the Queen Mother, within a few weeks of one another, ensured a) the demonstration of great sympathy for Queen Elizabeth and b) in the Queen Mother’s case, the sort of extraordinary set piece funeral that was, well, a remarkable, compelling spectacle. And why not? She was, after all, the last Empress of India. No Elton John here, thank god.
That, plus the striking success of the Queen’s Jubilee (a million people lined the streets of London) confirmed that the Windsors had learned the Lampedusan logic that underpins their position: things must change if they are to remain the same.
So they have. The Royal family is a little more in tune with the shifting priorities of British public opinion; a little more responsive; a little more open. They learned the lessons of Diana’s death. (Of course, it helps to have a brace of photogenic young princes to help this process – something Diana can claim some credit for).
It is hard to imagine how Charles could have married Camilla Parker Bowles – and had this marriage accepted by his people if Diana had lived. That being the case it is reasonable to suppose that Charles would be less fit to be king than he is. Whatever his faults, it matters that he’s comfortable in his own skin and ready to succeed. Marriage to a woman he clearly loves helps that process; consequently it strengthens the monarchy. That being so, Diana’s death has helped prepare Charles for the throne and, consequently, strengthened the institutions of Royalty.
This all seems pretty clear to me. Viewed from the cui bono perspective, I think one can say that Charles, the Queen and the institution all benefited from Diana’s death. What’s more, in some respects, so did Diana herself.
She died at the optimum moment for her reputation. We have generally chosen to overlook the squalor of the her final months. As it was she died as the saintly Diana, friend to the weak, the sick, the maimed, the – yuck! – "People’s Princess". That tiara that would have slipped eventually, however. Harsh though it is to say, one wonders how long it would have been before Diana’s string of love affairs with men of questionable suitability tarnished her reputation. Not too long I suspect. How long before public sympathy for her plight curdled into condemnation of her actions? Had she continued to see coke-snorting Egyptian playboys such as Dodi al-Fayed and other dubious members of that social world, one wonders how long it would have been before the public began to see her as, not to put too fine a point on it, a tart.
Hypocritical perhaps, but Princes and Princesses play by different rules. I find it highly improbable that Diana could have continued to enjoy the sort of beatific (if intrusive) press she did. At some point the pendulum would have swung against her. Just as well no-one really got around to asking just what the hell she was doing with al-Fayed anyway. Not that he was the first or likely to have been the last. There are some things the mother of the future monarch is just not supposed to do: hanging out with that kind of rich trash is one of those things.
So, yes, from the perspective of those of us who never knew her personally, and judging these matters soberly, even mean-spiritedly, it seems to me that Diana’s death was her final significant public service.
That’s not, it scarcely needs saying, to downplay her stardom or denigrate the charitable work she did (especially her early and generous approach to AIDS), merely to observe that her death has, rather oddly, strengthened the institution of monarchy, not weakened it.
The hysteria we witnessed a decade ago – and that is now seen by many as an unfortunate and embarrassing ou
tburst – has passed. We can see more clearly now.
PS: The other people, of course, who may be thankful for her death are those bored by any and everything Royal. True, you will have a tough time this week, but in general there’s been less attention paid to the Windsors than would have been the case had she lived.Tags: Britain