Princess Diana: the monarchy's Brexit moment

On the 20th anniversary of Diana's death, an edited chapter from the author's The Lure of Greatness

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
31 August 2017

Image: Public domain

The one exception to the story of degeneration and loss of belief of the central, defining institutions of the United Kingdom is the monarchy. However galling for republicans, the monarchy played a long game helped by the Queen’s personal longevity, and saved itself. With the next three kings lined up, it is already projecting its claim into the twenty-second century. How it achieved this and at what price helps to demonstrate the larger argument. The traditional, constitutional settlement built around the absolute sovereignty of the core institutions of the Commons, the Cabinet, the Lords and the Crown, have lost their claim to a pre-modern form of allegiance.  The monarchy went through its own equivalent of a Brexit shock with Princess Diana. It then found a way back, but only after discarding its precious freight of untouchability.

Three key moments were 1992, when Andrew Morton’s revealing book on the marriage of Diana and Charles was published and they separated; 1995, when Diana gave her Panorama interview setting out her claims directly; and 1997, when she died. The Queen publicly described 1992 as her Annus Horribilis – a horrible year. She had good reason to. As well as the open conflict between the heir to the throne and Diana, with lurid personal tapes of conversations between them and their lovers filling the tabloids, two of her other children ended their marriages and Windsor Castle caught fire. Her acknowledgement shared the crisis of the royal family with the public, an unheard-of breach in protocol. It was a permission to debate the nature and role of the monarchy and its future in a potentially influential fashion. It is hard to convey the force of the post-war taboo preventing such discussion. The monarch had been satirised from the sixties, and derided by the Sex Pistols on her Silver Jubilee in 1977. But the unwritten prohibition of serious discussion only began to erode in 1980s. After 1992, the Crown was still worshipped, but it became an institution that could be publicly criticised and debated without the critics being pilloried.

Three years later Diana gave her extraordinary interview. Looking back, it is easy to see why Donald Trump, as well as talking about how he wanted to ‘nail’ her in his usual disgusting way, virtually stalked her after the break-up with Charles. Selina Scott described how, ‘He bombarded Diana at Kensington Palace with massive bouquets of flowers, each worth hundreds of pounds . . . Trump clearly saw Diana as the ultimate trophy wife,’ while Diana commented: ‘He gives me the creeps.’ Trump, inevitably, reported that they had ‘a great relationship’.

During an extraordinary, hour-long interview, watched by over 20 million, Diana said:

I think the British people need someone in public life to give affection, to make them feel important, to support them, to give them light in their dark tunnels . . . I would like a monarchy that has more contact with its people – and I don’t mean by riding round bicycles and things like that . . . I’d like to be a queen of people’s hearts, in people’s hearts . . . I don’t think many people will want me to be Queen. Actually, when I say many people I mean the establishment that I married into, because they have decided that I’m a non-starter . . . because I lead from the heart, not the head . . . I think every strong woman in history has had to walk down a similar path, and I think it’s the strength that causes the confusion and the fear. Why is she strong? Where does she get it from? Where is she taking it? Where is she going to use it? Why do the public still support her? When I say public, you go and do an engagement and there’s a great many people there . . . And I want to reassure all those people who have loved me and supported me throughout the last 15 years that I’d never let them down.

The main elements of what we can now recognise as celebrity populism are in play. An attack on a cold-hearted Establishment for its calculated indifference to regular people. The attack being made by a member of the Establishment, with all the authority of knowing it at first hand, who has gone rogue. A position of being truly on the side of the public and understanding their pain, along with a liberal use of the word love and sharing one’s love (something Trump now does a lot). Measuring ‘the people’ by the size of the crowds and media attention. And at the same time, at length in other sections of the interview, attacking the media for its destructiveness while using the media to broadcast this attack.

When Diana died two years later, Blair declared she was ‘The People’s Princess’. The use of ‘The People’ entered British political vocabulary with a new meaning, perhaps for the first time. Not because of the prime minister but because ‘The People’ occupied the huge spaces of the royal Mall in an enormous, spontaneous mobilisation. Quite unlike official events, such as celebration of royal marriages, the crowd was completely outside of official control. It also stayed with a sense of resolve. The People would not have the princess scorned. In her Balmoral Scottish fastness, the Queen declined to have the royal flag flown at half-mast over Buckingham Palace. She and her family responded just like the cold, heartless, oppressive ‘Establishment’ that Diana had warned about. Had this standoff continued, the Palace and the royals could have been overwhelmed. Elizabeth conceded to the prime minister’s unequivocal advice, flew to London, made a TV address and briefly joined the crowds to examine the myriad of bouquets. The day was saved. It was a harbinger of Brexit, of the public willing to separate itself, calmly and deliberately, from a distrusted, traditional authority; with quiet resolve, to borrow a phrase from Theresa May.

It transformed the relationship of the Crown to the public for ever. Millions continue to love the Queen and remain attached to the monarchy as an institution. But its sanctity has gone – destroyed by Diana’s attempt to modernise it. Absurd as it might seem, Diana, like Charles and the rest of the royal family, believed in divine right. This is what she signals when she says she is against them ‘riding round on bicycles and things like that’, as immensely wealthy Dutch and Scandinavian royals do, who act as if they are normal. They may be privileged but they do not pretend to be different. It was the opposite for Diana. She was more royalist than the royals and believed in reviving the curing, royal touch. The interview was her call for them: to up their game, reach out and provide ‘heart’ to the people. It was an attempt to revamp the royal family. She sets out her aim in the last part of the interview, clearly prepared in advance: to get Charles to stand down as being unfit to be king so that the succession goes straight to William, divine right having made its way to him through her loins.

The ridiculous scenario of Diana orchestrating the succession as queen of people’s hearts shows she was partly deranged by the adulation she so skilfully encouraged. Her death saved the royals from an internal civil war. The people would have been persuaded not to follow Diana, but she would have retained a noisy, devoted following obsessed with the injustice she had suffered. When she died, however, ‘The People’ came together as one and obliged the sovereign to bow her head and salute the Princess in her catafalque. A shift of influence took place, a kind of democratisation, if the word can be used in this context.

The royal family, which has a small committee to consider its plans and prospects, learnt how celebrity populism that lionised their esteem was a fatal temptation. They organised a careful, managed retreat which included minimising media intrusion. A form of normalisation was adopted. William was sent to university at St Andrews – small, traditional, good quality, isolated, and as far away from London as it is possible to be. He was allowed to marry a commoner whom he met there. Security will keep him off bicycles on the public highway when he is king, but he has been given the ambition of appearing to be ordinary and becoming human rather than being ‘above us’. This is the price the monarchy is paying for its institutional survival. If a written constitution comes their way, as it should, he will not have a problem swearing a coronation oath to uphold it. It will then define his role, and divine right will come to an end.

The larger issue is one of identification. The Queen is already seen as embodying the past. For the opening of the Olympic games, she was used in a James Bond sequence and a stand-in dressed as her parachuted into the arena in a stunt. This gave her the common touch but also put her in her place. At her coronation in 1953 she was heralded as the face of a ‘New Elizabethan age’. Then, the monarchy was at the centre of imaging the country’s future. Still flushed by emerging intact from the war, at the height of Churchillism, with the great man himself as her prime minister, the Queen could take the weight of representing the country’s aspirations. She was still surrounded by supporting institutions that she personally headed and which defined us: the armed forces (she took their salute on horseback), the Church of England, the civil service, and indeed the hereditary House of Lords, not to speak of debutantes coming out in their annual ball at Buckingham Palace and round-the-clock deference. In his wonderful account of the web spun by the monarchy and its grip on the British mentality, The Enchanted Glass, Tom Nairn has a hilarious but also troubling discussion of how the Queen was adored and entered people’s dreams, thoughts and imagination. The monarchy with its associated glamour of backwardness was central, he argues, to multinational British nationalism. It was a relationship willed by people who wished to remain subjects. He quotes John Buchan writing in 1935: ‘The essence of the British Monarchy is that the King, while lifted far above the nation, should also be the nation itself in its most characteristic form’. The royals carried this essence through the war and Queen Elizabeth took it to new heights.

Forty years later, after a slow deflation, Diana bid to rekindle a new version of Buchan’s essence: as the Queen of people’s hearts, the light in their dark tunnels. She saw that only a populist monarchy could be the personification of today’s cruder, grasping nation. Diana’s was a loathsome, patronising pitch. The car crash saved the day. But the response that followed as the people occupied the Mall and clapped the coffin taught the royal family never again to put themselves forward for such a role. The route to normalisation is much safer, if this is the choice a demotic age imposes on them. They have survived – but no one would now describe Britain’s story as the ‘second Elizabethan age’.

Thanks to Rupert Murdoch we are told that the Queen supported Brexit. The Palace promptly denied the report, as the issue is too divisive. With a form of civil war stretching ahead, they cannot allow themselves to be the focus of massive public ire by either side. It is a long way from 1953. Also, there is something healthy about Brexit that harmonises with the republican spirit, in its anti-elitism and demand to ‘take back control’ rather than be controlled. This too is dangerous for them. Looking back, the millions who lined the streets to applaud Diana’s shattered body can be seen as the people mourning the end of their hope – a hope of renewing a Britishness they could enjoy by dreaming of her. If so, there is no longer the same urge, looking past Elizabeth, to dream of Britain. The Family continues. But a peculiarity of Great British nationalism was that it needed a pre-modern personification, because of its primitive, seventeenth-century formation. Without an adored monarch to define it, Britishness and the monarchy can live on, but 'Great Britain' as a state may not long survive.

This is an edited chapter from the author's The Lure of Greatness: England's Brexit & America's Trump

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