It is, of course, a decent and civilised custom to speak no ill of the recently dead, unless they be of exceptional wickedness; but there is no need to go to the opposite extreme and attribute a panoply of almost inhuman virtues to them, or actually to forget one's own reservations about their character.
In the weeks after Diana's death, it became virtually taboo, at least in the popular press and on television, to express even mild qualifications about her qualities. In private, and occasionally in public, smart people were cynical about Diana; in some fashionable quarters, indeed, bashing the Princess became de rigueur. All the same, the prevailing mood of the time was to attribute to her every virtue, from genius to love of all mankind. The cult of Stalinism at its height scarcely invented more perfections.
To understand how this came about, it is necessary to understand the Princess's mass appeal, as shown in the hundreds of thousands who went to considerable personal effort and expense to attend her funeral and provide a mountain of flowers to commemorate her. She combined in her person the qualities of unapproachable glamour and complete banality: she lived in stratospheric realms of celebrity. At the same time, she was reassuringly unintellectual, with no talent beyond charisma, and tastes that were commonplace. She lived a life of which millions dream as they fill in their lottery tickets: endless holidays punctuated by a few good works. In essence, she was both fairy princess and heroine of a soap opera.
For those who required a deeper justification for their interest in her, there was the fact of her having suffered, despite her privileged existence. She was unhappy in her marriage and contracted bulimia, itself both a cause and consequence of suffering. In addition, she was thought to have been badly treated, both by her husband's family and the press, and was therefore considered a martyr to a cause that was never clearly defined. But in sympathising with her, people were really feeling sorry for themselves; they knew that they, too, had suffered and felt that they, too, were martyrs to her undefined cause.
A foolish and contradictory conception of Diana as fairy princess, soap- opera heroine and martyr all in one encouraged the development of an atmosphere of militant and bullying sentimentality, which spread poisonously over the land. Those who did not share in the supposedly universal grief were pilloried as lacking in human feeling. And if the People were united in grief, then anyone failing to grieve was ipso facto not one of the People: indeed, was perilously close to being an Enemy of the People.
How far the mass hysteria was spontaneous, and how far it was manufactured by the press, is a question that is unlikely ever to be answered definitively. What is beyond doubt, however, is that the press led in the hounding of the Queen, a disgraceful episode in our modern history. For while it was widely suspected that the Queen's relations with her former daughter- in-law were less than cordial, it was nevertheless demanded of her that she express her sorrow in public. It was overlooked completely that the Queen was a 70-year-old woman, whom it was unseemly to bully in this fashion, whatever the merits of the case; overlooked also was the fact, which not even the most ardent republican could deny, that for four-and- a-half decades the Queen had performed her duties with devotion, and was therefore entitled to a certain leeway in the matter. The People were said by the press to want an expression of her grief. Either the Queen felt that grief, in which case common decency demanded that she should have been left alone to experience it in privacy; or she did not, in which case she should not have been expected to simulate emotions she did not actually feel.
What kind of people demand, belligerently, to be told lies? The same kind of people - and there were many, including intellectuals - who saw in the public expression of emotion that followed Diana's death a breakthrough in the willingness of the British public to be emotionally honest and open, which they took as a sign of psychological health. In post-Diana Britain, no one would ever again conceal anything he or she felt: we would all be totally frank and confiding, and weep on one another's shoulders.
Emotions expressed in this fashion, however, and which hardly exist independently of the histrionic gestures by which they are paraded in public, are likely to prove intense but shallow. So it has proved in this case: most of the public is now weary of the whole business. A commemorative march along the funeral route to mark the first anniversary of the Princess's death drew only 300 participants instead of the expected 30,000.
The kind of emotional incontinence we witnessed last year is the enemy of freedom. It was ugly, it was brutal and it was absurd. Diana's death was a tragedy, but it would be a greater tragedy if we were not now to let her rest in peace.