The Guardian (editorial) – 26 August 2017
The Guardian view on Diana, 20 years on: we remain a nation of royal voyeurs
The princess was the most famous woman in the world and she helped millions express their feelings openly, but she was bound to the press on a wheel of fire
Floral tributes to Diana, Princess of Wales in Paris after her death in 1997. Photograph: Bernard Bisson/Sygma via Getty Images
‘Millions upon millions of words were written about Diana, Princess of Wales, while she lived. Multiple millions more words were written when she died so shockingly in 1997. Now, 20 years on from Diana´s death, further millions are again being added to this already superabundant store. Remarkably, some of this latest harvest of words, like the ones that Hilary Mantel contributes in our Review section today, say something fresh about the complex, unprecedented and undeniable chemistry that existed between Diana and the British people.
Mantel suggests, for example, that 1980s Britain, a land whose national matriarchs were a reserved and distant monarch and an abrasive warrior prime minister, needed Diana “to distract the nation from the hardness of its own character”. In many ways that was true. The summer of the “fairytale wedding” to Prince Charles in 1981 – Mantel rightly reminds us that fairytales are often very dark and cruel – was the summer of the Brixton and Toxteth riots and of unemployment at 2.5 million. The fairytale proved an impossible burden to the young aristocrat whose marriage unravelled, first in private and then in the glariest public glare. In the course of all this, Diana became the most famous woman in the world but, in the end, she had nowhere to hide. As Mantel puts it, “a collective creation, she was also a collective possession”.
Diana’s legacy is tricky to pin down precisely, but impossible to deny absolutely. After she died, following scenes of mass grief and candle-lighting that made Britain seem briefly Latin American, there was much talk about “post-Diana Britain”. The nation of the stiff upper lip and of keeping calm found itself wobbling and weeping in public – and felt comfortable with it. Perhaps the most important thing Diana did, never more than in the 1995 Panorama interview, was to help grant millions of people a degree of permission to express their feelings more publicly than the Britain of two world wars, in whose shadow she grew up, had ever allowed.
Twenty years on, though, there are continuities too. Tony Blair may memorably have dubbed Diana’s the “people’s princess” in 1997, but she was also very much, as the cover of current Private Eye puts it, the “papers’ princess”. The role of the press in Diana’s life and death was massive. She and the press were mutually dependent. As King Lear puts it, they were bound upon a wheel of fire. Diana manipulated the press. The press exploited her with eagerness. But only one of them suffered for it. Her face sold papers and magazines, and still does. Most of this anniversary is not driven by the palace or politicians but by the media. You would never know it from the coverage, but no formal public event is scheduled for next Thursday.
This may explain why there is something important missing in this anniversary. A 20th anniversary is a productive moment for reflection. Witnesses are still available. There are new voices to hear – as the documentary Diana, 7 Days on BBC1 on Sunday will show. The events are still vivid for many. But they are inexorably becoming history too.
Nevertheless, the most striking thing about the anniversary is its relentless personalisation and its no less relentless avoidance of serious debate about anything that genuinely matters. The millions of words ask us to judge the principal players as individuals in a story – Diana herself, Charles, their sons, Camilla, the Queen. They rarely ask us to consider larger lessons. As Mantel puts it, we allow the royals to “exist apart from utility, and by virtue of our unexamined and irrational needs”.
Questions such as whether Charles or William should succeed Elizabeth or whether Camilla should be queen are trivial, even infantilising. They treat the monarchy as a reality TV show for a nation of voyeurs, not active citizens. Nowhere in the millions of words is there any reflection on the fact that Britain is now 20 years closer than in 1997 to a new monarch and, inevitably, a new sort of monarchy. Twenty years ago, the royals came in for criticism for their role in the aftermath of the death of Diana. Twenty years on, the monarchy is unassailable and rarely debated.
This could have been a moment in which we tried to consider, as a people, what kind of a monarchy is appropriate to 21st century, post-Diana, post-Brexit, digital-era Britain. If we remembered our constitutional history better, more of us would recognise that this is, and ought to be, a question for parliament and the public, not for the Windsors. But that moment is being missed, to our shared loss.’
Postscript by Irène Diependaal written for Hereditas Historiae
The Guardian was in this leading article referring to a BBC documentary which was not broadcasted yet. A trailer was already made available.
The programme, “Diana, 7 Days “ was broadcasted on 27 August 2017 on BBC One.
In this television documentary Prince William and Prince Harry were among the persons who were interviewed. They publicly defended the decision made by the Prince of Wales and the Queen to keep them at Balmoral following the car crash that killed their mother in 1997. They praised their father for his part in helping them grieve. Prince Harry: “One of the hardest things for a parent to have to do is to tell your children is that your other parent has died. How you deal with that I don't know but, you know, he was there for us. He was the one out of two left and he tried to do his best and to make sure we were protected and looked after. But, you know, he was going through the same grieving process as well.”
Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge on the decisions taken by his grandmother, Elizabeth II: “I don’t think anyone, even my grandmother, had seen this anything like this before. I think all of us were on new territory. But for Harry and I, my grandmother and father believed we were better served at Balmoral, having the walks and the space and peace to be with the family and not be immersed having to deal with serious decision or worries straight away. I think it was a very hard decision for my grandmother to make. She felt very torn between being a grandmother to William and Harry, and her Queen role.”
The princes showed full emotions in looking back at their return to London and their decision to walk behind the coffin during the funeral procession.
Describing coming back to London to meet the public, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge: “What was very peculiar but obviously incredibly touching was everybody crying. The wailing and the crying and people wanting to touch us… I was 15 and Harry was 12. It was like nothing you can really describe, it was very unusual. They were shouting and literally wailing at us. Throwing flowers, yelling, sobbing, breaking down, people fainted, collapsed.” Speaking of the funeral procession, he added: "I couldn’t understand why everyone wanted to cry as loud as they did, and show such emotion as they did when they didn’t really know our mother. “I did feel a bit protective at times about her. I was like, 'you didn’t even know her'. Why and how are you so upset? Now looking back, over the last few years I’ve learned to understand what it was she gave the world and a lot of people.”
In hindsight, Prince Harry told the BBC he was really glad he had walked behind the Princess’ coffin. He had to go through a phase of wishing his royal status away to devote himself to duty and make his mother proud of him. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge added: “When you have something so traumatic as the death of your mother when you’re 15, it will either make or break you. I wouldn’t let it break it, I wanted it to make me.”
Also former Prime Minister Tony Blair, his aide Alistair Campbell and high palace officials were among the interviewed.