The illusionists

Young, attractive, unstuffy: in his speech the morning Diana died, Tony Blair managed to imply that he and the People's Princess embodied the best of New Britain. How much does the virtuous, yet modernising image of either have to do with reality?
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The Independent Culture
THINK BACK a year to the August evening which ended with Diana, Princess of Wales, dying from the injuries she received in a car crash in Paris. We are so familiar with every detail of that final night, the romantic dinner at the Ritz and the Princess waiting impatiently for the return journey to Dodi Fayed's apartment, her image captured poignantly on the hotel's security video, that any other sequence of events is difficult to imagine. But let us try, for a moment, to consider what would have happened if Diana and Dodi had chosen a driver other than Henri Paul, someone who had not consumed a lethal combination of alcohol and prescription drugs. Or if they had decided to foil the waiting paparazzi by spending the night at the Ritz, which is owned by Dodi's father Mohammed Al Fayed, instead of returning to his flat.

No deaths, no mourning, no eulogy from Tony Blair, none of the manifestations of grief which led some commentators to talk last year about a "floral revolution" in Britain. Diana herself, it seems safe to assume, would still be struggling with the dilemma she faced when she began her affair with Dodi and decided, somewhat belatedly, that she wanted to rebuild the walls around her private life. Having invited the world in, first when she secretly co-operated with Andrew Morton's biography in 1992, and again when she gave an interview to the BBC's Martin Bashir in 1995, she gave every sign in the month before her death of wanting to escape the intrusive scrutiny of the rat pack - yet without losing her status as the most famous woman who had ever lived.

Within hours of her death, it became impolite to mention the fact that her behaviour in those final weeks was wildly unstable. Yet, if she had lived, we would almost certainly have witnessed more outbursts like the one off St Tropez in July last year, when she teased royal reporters with the promise of an impending announcement which would shock them all, only to deny it when their accounts appeared in print. Her affair with Dodi, if it was more than a holiday romance - the kind of fling which often follows release from an unhappy marriage - could only have sharpened this conflict. It had already confirmed that the stellar celebrity to which the Princess aspired is a dangerous and decidedly two-way currency, a trade in images which none of the protagonists fully controls.

Ironically, given the romantic glow which posthumously suffused their brief courtship, the course of events which would most easily have solved the problem was a messy break-up with Dodi, allowing Diana to resume her accustomed role: unlucky in love, but the queen of all our hearts. For if her marriage to Prince Charles was crowded, as she told Bashir, because of the spectral presence of Camilla Parker Bowles, the same could be said of her own affair with the British public: there was never much room, in that heated relation, for third parties. Diana's potency was so bound up with playing solitaire that it is hard to imagine its surviving her metamorphosis into Mrs Dodi Fayed. Or, indeed, Mrs anybody else.

But what about us? We believe we were changed by Diana's death, we are forever being told we have changed, so what would "we" be like if she had not stepped into the fatal Mercedes? Think of Britain before the carpet of flowers was laid in front of Kensington Palace, before the books of condolence were opened in supermarkets, before the hand-written messages were attached to railings: we would have gone on, I suppose, being uncaring, uncompassionate, attached to old ways of thinking and behaving. The Government might not have been ready to sign up for a ban on landmines, nor the royal family willing to depart from the formality which was for so long their - and especially the Queen's - trademark. It would certainly have needed more than a photocall with Nelson Mandela and the Spice Girls to restore Prince Charles's sagging popularity, or to make us look with anything other than hostility on Diana's deadly rival, Camilla.

There would be no autographed margarine tubs, no grandiose plans to ruin Kensington Gardens, no books purporting to discover coded messages in the Princess's clothes, no "Candle in the Wind '97". There would be no memorial fund sucking in money at the expense of other charities, no rallying (however short-lived) to the serially adulterous Earl Spencer as the deserted wives' champion, no attempt to re-invent Diana as a secular saint, a feminist icon or a republican heroine. Nor would the country be split into factions, the "Dianita" camp which will not have a word said against its idol and the "Diarrhoea" heretics who are sick of the whole business, with a bewildered group of agnostics in between. Would it really be such a bad thing?

One thing we can say with confidence is that it would not be so exciting. It is often remarked that the crash in Paris was an unprecedented media event, in which the natural emotional response to a horrific accident was unnaturally heightened by the intense focus of news organisations. There is some truth in this suggestion, in the sense that the initial question about Diana's death - "What does it mean?" - received an oblique answer in the sheer extent of the coverage afforded to it by TV, radio and newspapers. I remember thinking, when a friend woke me with the news on 31 August last year, that it was sad and shocking, as it is when any young man or woman dies in horrible circumstances, but no more than that.

As I listened to BBC radio, to the sombre announcements and the long list of cancelled programmes, its importance seemed to inflate to a point where people were already looking forward to how they would look back on the moment. Each one of us, pundits were insisting, would remember precisely where and how we heard the news, deliberately invoking comparisons with the assassination - politically far more significant than the accidental death of the divorced wife of the heir to the throne of a constitutional monarchy - of President John F Kennedy. From the beginning, we were invited to involve ourselves in a breaking news story which satellite technology beamed direct into our homes: viewers were given a rare opportunity to share the reporters' adrenalin rush, that heady sense of being close to dramatic events, in a way that reverberated on the streets of Britain in the following week. Frequent repetition of the details, and constant addition of new ones, acted on the worldwide audience like a myth, embedding the crash scene deep into the unconscious where it began to assume a variety of meanings. (At some points, what was being reported really was myth, such as the tabloids' lurid claim that Trevor Rees-Jones. Dodi's bodyguard and the only survivor, had had his tongue ripped out in the crash and would never be able to describe what he saw. Enter the Silent Witness.)

As the day of the funeral approached, Diana's death took on the dimensions of Greek tragedy, as though we were all present - perhaps even players in - a week-long performance of the Oresteia. Although they did not express themselves in precisely these terms, many of the mourners apparently experienced a form of catharsis, their grief over Diana helping to resolve private tragedies of their own Their feelings, to those of us who did not share them, appeared neither insincere nor inauthentic - but they did reveal a bizarre fantasy of intimacy. The Princess's death touched millions of people, most of whom had never met her, but that did not prevent them talking confidently about what she was like, how she felt about Dodi Fayed, and what she would have wanted to happen after her death. This process reached its apogee in the millions of messages addressed not to the Princess's family, as is the custom with condolence cards, but to the dead woman herself. If death constitutes the definitive absence, what were the mourners doing in that eerie week before the funeral but talking to themselves?

What everyone was too polite to say, assuming they had noticed it amid the tumultuous outpouring of emotion, was that the Princess's death was so congruent with her life as to seem pre-ordained. In Morton's book and her Panorama interview, she presented herself as a tragic figure, driven to attempted suicide by the callousness of her husband and his relatives. It was a story of optimism and deception, of love and betrayal, and it tended inevitably towards further unhappiness - the pattern established by Prince Charles was followed, she implied, by James Hewitt - and perhaps even calamity. This observation stems not from a belief in fate but from the way in which, long before her death, two dangerous forces were in motion: the Princess's poor judgement, especially in the conduct of her private life, and her tendency towards a species of histrionics which found an alarmingly receptive audience. She had written a script for herself in which, of all possible endings, the phrase "happy ever after" always seemed the least likely conclusion.

At the time, thousands of people were wary of publicly dissociating themselves from the assumption that the entire country was caught up in a carnival of grief. (It is also the case that, due to a spectacular failure on the part of the media, there were very few outlets for their views.) Dissent was made all the more problematic by Tony Blair's emergence in the role of deus ex machina on the morning of the Princess's death, confirming its status as an event of overwhelming national significance. Blair grew in stature as he spoke, visibly moved by news of the crash at the Pont de l'Alma. But this speech was also a political masterstroke, appropriating Diana's image through his deft (though not original) use of the phrase "the People's Princess". Blair managed to imply that he and the dead Princess embodied all that was best in modern, pre-millennial Britain: young, attractive, informal, unstuffy. His performance, so soon after the early-hours event which prompted it, inevitably recalled that May morning last year when he first offered himself as a mouthpiece for the nation's feelings. On that occasion he personified our joy as the sleazy Tories were unceremoniously booted out of office; now he spoke for our grief, consoling us for the loss of a woman who had rarely been out of the headlines since her engagement to Prince Charles in 1981.

Of course Blair was not going to say that she had lived her life, latterly, as a species of soap opera. Or that many of her admirers had followed her dramas - separation, divorce, affairs, holidays, the recent sale of her dresses - with the same degree of superficial fascination they felt for Coronation Street. It was a transforming moment, in which a new and untried Prime Minister appeared to transcend politics, irrevocably changing his relationship with the public. Six days later, his stagy performance in Westminster Abbey did not play anything like so well, but by then his work was done. A self-professed moderniser, a leader whose speeches were full of forward-looking rhetoric, had taken it upon himself to save the monarchy - and divert to himself some of its remaining mystique. He did it by the simple expedient of persuading the Windsors to look upset, join in the soupy tributes to Diana and lower the flag over Buckingham Palace.

As a gesture, it was exactly what the Princess herself might have recommended. Blair was acting as her surrogate, accelerating the process of reform insofar as the word has any meaning in this context - of which her sons, William and Harry, were the intended beneficiaries. (This is what makes any attempt to claim her as a covert republican, even as an unwitting force on its behalf, so wide of the mark; that it has been made at all is a tribute to the intermittent brilliance of her PR, and to an essential blankness which continues to act as a screen for all sorts of fantasies.) But Diana's commitment to the survival of the monarchy is far from being the only thing she had in common with Blair. The most compelling parallel is their mutual attachment to a glittering illusion of modernity.

Blair takes off his jacket and invites Cabinet colleagues to call him by his first name. Like Diana, he looks very different from the public figures we have been used to in this country, inviting Noel Gallagher of Oasis to No 10 and characterising Britain under New Labour as cool, hip and caring. What his Government stands for is less certain, with many of its policies seamlessly adopted from the Conservative administration which preceded it, and displaying a marked reluctance to offend big business. Adversarial politics are out of fashion, appearances are far more important that ideology, and no one knows better how to manipulate images than Tony Blair - except Diana, when she was alive. She worked out at a gym, wore designer dresses, made friends with Elton John and Gianni Versace, visited a therapist and talked on television about her eating disorder. She did not aspire to a job or an income of her own, nor the relatively independent lifestyle she might have enjoyed if she had moved out of her apartment in Kensington Palace. Even her campaign against landmines was assisted, farcically, by the loan of an aircraft from an arms dealer.

These contradictions do not worry us too much, indeed we barely give them a thought. Millions of people, it seems, want to believe that Britain has changed without going to the trouble of actually doing anything about it. To give just one example, the frequently repeated assertion that we are more compassionate in the wake of Diana's death has not been translated into an increase in the money we give to charity - certainly not into a widespread acceptance that a fairer society can be achieved most effectively by an increase in income tax for the better-off. So what is her legacy? There could hardly be a more vivid illustration of our deluded state, of our attachment to a kind of faux-modernity, than our readiness to canonise a woman whose dynastic ambitions, occasional good works - she left nothing to charity in her will - and sentimental aspirations would not be out of place in a Jane Austen novel. We get the heroes we deserve and it is no accident that the presiding deities of our age are a Prime Minister in shirt sleeves and a Princess in Versace. !