The Guardian - 5 August 2017
Diana’s life shaped Britain. But in death she's changed us too
By Jonathan Freedland
That emotion-fuelled week in 1997 rocked the monarchy, and provided a foretaste of today's populism
Illustration: Robert G. Fresson
'The first thing you notice is what’s not there. Gaze at pictures of the crowds that filled the streets of London in the days that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales - whether laying cellophane-wrapped flowers outside Kensington Palace or silently watching her flag-draped coffin head to Westminster Abbey - and there is a striking absence. No one is holding up a phone. Instead, people clutch handmade signs or newspapers whose sentiments they shared. Back in 1997, holding up a front page you agreed with was the closest thing we had to a retweet.
There has been much looking back to the years of Diana, as the 20th anniversary of her death approaches. There have been glowing TV portraits other brief, ill-starred life and of the sons she left behind; but as 31 August gets closer, it’s the immediate aftermath of her death I find myself thinking of.
Those days when the country basked in early September sunshine, gathering in big numbers, mourning a woman few had ever met but whose loss suddenly pained them, raging at a royal family that seemed icily unmoved: those days seemed important at the time and, I'd argue, remain important now. For in their own erratic, inconsistent way, they pointed to the country we were about to become - and the country we are now.
Not long afterwards, it became fashionable to mock that week of Diana. It had been a moment of collective madness, a late summer fit of national hysterics in which Britain briefly lost its mind. The smart posture was one of gentle derision, usually alongside a claim that it was all got up, or at least exaggerated, by the media.
That view was reinforced by the way Diana slipped from public consciousness so swiftly, floating away as quickly as a helium-filled tribute balloon. The speed of it seemed to confirm that all the red -eyed grief was more confected than real. For all the vows that she would remain "Queen of people's hearts", subsequent anniversaries of Diana's death came and went, with scant attention. Outside the Daily Express, and beyond the conspiracist fringe, she was rarely mentioned.
The challenge she had once posed to the monarchy faded too. Rarely had the house of Windsor been less popular than when it dashed with Diana - her husband exposed as unfaithful, the rest of the family depicted as cold and heartless in its dealings with a vulnerable young woman. When they stripped her of her title - insisting that she no longer be called Her Royal Highness - the Windsors defined themselves as petty and vindictive, as well as pedantically determined to ding to absurd, Ruritanian flummery.
Diana always insisted she was no republican, but public sympathy for her undermined the monarchy all the same. That came to a head in the week after her death. The demand of the crowds and the papers for a public expression of sorrow from the Queen - "Show Us You Care", headlined the Express - and the monarch’s eventual acquiescence felt, at the time, like a republican moment.
But that challenge faded too. Once Diana was gone, the Windsors regrouped. The past two decades have seen them restored to their previous place in the nation's esteem. Jubilees, weddings and royal births have helped. Once, in the Diana era and especially just after her death, the monarchy's position had genuinely seemed precarious. No longer.
In multiple ways, then, that hot-headed week looks like it amounted to nothing. But that's not quite right. For one thing, what happened in those days was truly out of the ordinary. The i o-hour queues to sign condolence books, the million people who lined the route of the funeral cortege; the 32 million-strong TV audience; the hearse heading up an empty MI, its windscreen obscured by bouquets hurled from motorway bridges; the silence of the capital on that Saturday, the same hush that comes when there's been a heavy snowfall, as one witness tells an upcoming ITV documentary, Diana: The Day Britain Cried - all of that was real. And it was not nothing.
It has left a mark too. Part of the royals' current popularity derives from the fact that “the firm” resolved to learn the lessons of Diana and that week. Never again would they let themselves land so egregiously on the wrong side of public opinion. Now, Princes William and Harry are following a Diana-style PR strategy, projecting themselves as everything the Windsor dynasty was not that week: approachable, informal, emotionally intelligent.
But the impact goes wider. When it comes to the public business of death and mourning, what seemed so novel then has become commonplace now. The flowers, the handwritten messages, the undisguised tears, the applause at a funeral - in 1997 these struck many Britons as alien, rituals more Mediterranean and Catholic than British and Protestant. Yet they have persisted. Today the roadside site of a fatal traffic accident is routinely marked by plastic-wrapped bouquets. Diana shaped the British way of death.
When you look at the TV footage of that time, something else strikes you. The crowds were diverse, including many who were young, black, Asian, gay. Along with Labour’s landslide election a few months earlier, this is why 1997 felt like a pivot year, revealing a new Britain that had been gradually taking shape.
That September week suggested another country was emerging, one that was more open, plural and socially liberal. (Remember, Diana’s favoured causes were progressive ones: Aids, homelessness, landmines.) The Britain that would be on show in Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony 15 years later had just offered a glimpse of itself.
In retrospect, that week offered a foretaste of something else too. A much-repeated phrase of the time was "the end of deference". If Britons were no longer keeping a stiff upper lip, they were also refusing to touch their forelock. They did not hesitate to vent their fury with the head of state, waving aside protocol and tradition. The country was in no mood to listen to the establishment; it was determined to get its way.
Deftly, the royals deflected that anti-establishment rage away from themselves. Within a few years they would enjoy all the old deference once more (witness this week’s warm tributes to Prince Philip), while the anger was directed instead at the political class. It's why the standout line in The Queen, the Peter Morgan drama, comes when the monarch reflects on the public backlash she has just endured and warns Tony Blair: “One day, quite suddenly and without warning, the same thing will happen to you.” As it surely did.
In the week of Diana, Britons revealed that, if the moment was right, they were quite willing to defy the ruling elite, to wave aside the so-called experts and listen to their instincts. They were also more than ready to put cold reason to one side and be guided by heart and gut.
This week Diana ‘s former psychic and “energy healer” has been rightly derided for claiming to know that the princess’s spirit, from the grave, backed Brexit. Still, if the leave campaign was characterised, in part, by a combination of anti-establishment fury and the triumph of emotion, then there is a line that can be traced that connects
the EU referendum and the late summer of 1997. Through her death, the people’s princess gave us an early glimpse of a very British form of populism - and it is anything but dead.'
Postscript by Irène Diependaal, written for Hereditas Historia
Jonathan Freedland is a weekly columnist and writer for the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and presents BBC Radio 4's contemporary history series, The Long View.