Comment: Britain is unbuttoning, but it will not bring the changes many expect

Suzanne Moore on the new mood
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The Independent Online
We're only a couple of weeks AD - After Diana, and already we are asking if any of it meant anything at all really. "So what has really changed then?" friends ask, disappointed that I have not presented them with the Queen's head on a stick. Others, less cynical, more optimistically announce that Britain has unbuttoned and we that have entered some touchy- feely New Age which signifies a rebirth of national identity. Yet the truth as they say, is somewhere out there and it is not the sort of thing that moulds itself into pre-determined political ideologies.

This is why the scuffle to find direct political correlatives for the public response to Diana's death was always going to be doomed. A cultural revolution cannot be reduced to the case for or against the monarchy. Hostility to the present Royal Family cannot be read simply as a form of direct action republicanism. But equally, arguing that the whole episode actually shored up the monarchy by forcing it to modernise itself slightly does not mean that an enormous amount of disquiet was not expressed or that things can ever go back to business as usual.

The search for immediate and tangible political consequences reached a form of hysteria far more out of control than any of the behaviour exhibited by the dignified masses. We know, don't we, that something significant happened a couple of weeks ago. Yet the very vagueness of it all is disturbing to those who prefer "significance" always to be wrapped up in little policy packages. The old Establishment was caught on the hop. There was no trickle- down effect in the grief for Diana. Rather this was a movement from the bottom up that did not so much proclaim the birth of a new order as illustrate how unconcerned we were with the old one.

For those in power this movement felt spontaneous. But in fact the signs have been there for a long time. The desire for collective rituals has never gone away. For football fans and rave-goers or anyone who can remember going on demonstrations, the powerful experience of just being with huge numbers of others will not be new. The policing of all crowds, rehearsed during the miners' strikes and finessed by the continuing attacks on New Age travellers, revealed a government deeply fearful of any gathering of people at all. The tragedies of Hillsborough and Heysel confirmed that crowds were essentially dangerous in themselves. It is not, as Simon Jenkins says, that the left has an orgasm every time it sees people on the streets, it is just unusual for such an event to be construed as unthreatening.

To say, though, that this is somehow the end of the ghastly individualism of the Eighties is another misreading. The need for communal ritual, for the acknowledgement of such a thing as society, can sit easily with a highly individualistic culture. The Blairite project promotes the idea of a fairer, more caring society precisely out of self-interest. "Your life will be better if other people's lives are better too," it says. "And we must make other people's lives better not because of beliefs or ideologies but because you personally will benefit."

Likewise the "feminisation" of society, which recent events are said to have triggered, sits alongside yet more surveys showing that men do as little housework as they ever did, that the glass ceiling remains intact in many professions, and that women still have far less leisure time than men. What I am suggesting, then, is that a culture can shift, a mood can change, new forms can emerge and yet many old structures can stay in place. The mistake is to presume that cultural shifts are somehow less "real" or less "meaningful" than the traditional manifestations of political power. What we have witnessed is, in Raymond Williams's phrase, a new "structure of feeling" that was already present but surfaced as a result of Diana'sdeath. It combines a number of things - some of which coincide with the coming to power of Blair, but many of which don't.

Talking to people in the crowds at the Palace I was struck more by the sense of something ending - something which it is too slick to call Thatcherism - rather than a sense of a new beginning.

What we are seeing is not so much revolution but the replacing of the old Establishment by the new. I was amazed not so much by the hostility to the Royal Family as to the total indifference to it. It is the same indifference that I feel reading about the editor of the Telegraph slugging it out with the owner of the Daily Mail; it is the same indifference I feel about internal disputes about the restructuring of a few news shows on the BBC. The assumption that these things are central to the culture should be challenged. Whose culture is it anyway? They are not central to my culture and what we have learnt surely is that the so-called dominant culture was taken completely by surprise at the strength of feeling that Diana's death provoked.

The strength of the dominant official culture is already precarious because it rests on assumptions about the way we live which are no longer tenable. The "all drugs are evil" line is laughable to large numbers of the population. It is not so much out of touch as merely irrelevant. Its legitimacy is overruled every weekend.

The devolving of political power, seen as part of New Britain, has also to be seen in the context of cultural devolution - the moving away from the old centres of power to new and unexpected ones. It's good to see these old certainties being shaken and stirred. The image of a still dazed and confused Tory party that can't quite believe the world in which it now finds itself is immensely cheering. On one level it feels as if this has happened overnight, yet at another we know it's been years in the making. The sense of looking forward rather than backwards, the celebration of our booming arts industry, the storming of the academy by a new generation of artists, is all nicely upbeat.

To gather up all this diversity, all these contradictory elements in the name of a post-modern form of nationalism - based not on allegiance to one's country but on allegiance to one's own innate sense of "cool" - is to miss the point. The Government may need to do this but the rest of us don't have to. The need to divide up what's hot and what's not, what's new and what's old, is reassuring perhaps for those who feel the need a map around the country that they now feel foreign, uncomfortable and embarrassed to be in.

The people out on the streets for Diana were exactly the opposite. They felt at home, at ease and that they belonged together. They did not need an official sanctioning and those whose job it is to give it may well feel redundant. Something that was perceived as only going on at the edges has moved inwards and the centre cannot hold because it suddenly appears as one little sub-culture jostling alongside the others for our attention. Will that really change things? Yes and no. It only means that we're just waking up to the extent to which things have already changed.