Once there was a Diana Effect. Alas, it is no more

She inspired republican sentiments in people. Politics, however, did not respond

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Rumour has long since swirled around the security services’ possible involvement in the death of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, and now the Metropolitan Police says it will seriously address the credibility of a soldier’s claim that the SAS had a role in her death on 31 August 1997 in a Paris underpass.

It tells us something that enough people find this spooky possibility thinkable. But nothing would surprise us about the security system wrapped around this most sexist and religiously sectarian (not to mention establishment) institution that still scaffolds democracy in these islands. What is shocking, however, is that a Republic of Britain remains unthinkable to all but a stalwart minority – that Britain can’t imagine a polity which doesn’t bow before the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty.

There was a moment when its sovereignty was not secure: that was the “Diana effect” two decades ago. It would be an exaggeration to say that this effect ignited an anti-monarchist majority. But it shook the monarchy: distaste for royal sexism morphed into dissent. It was fired by the discovery that this aristocratic foundling had been delivered to a prince – and then cruelly deceived by him – before a global audience of millions; and fired by the revelation that the entire Royal Family was complicit; that no one took care of the girl whose destiny was merely to harvest heirs.

The fairy princess was a throwback. Unlike the rest of her generation, her biology was destiny. But when she found her touch, her spirit and finally her voice, then she connected not with her own class but with other women.

The Diana effect was, first, her own righteous indignation: how dare the supposedly modern Prince behave like … well, a prince! How dare the Royal Family behave like … a royal family? By sharing her story, she called the Royal Family to account for their behaviour as human beings: this was their comeuppance.

If the royals wanted to be seen to perform sovereignty, then they had to be seen as normal – as people like us. But they weren’t like us – their manners and priorities indulged patriarchal values that were being thoroughly discredited in popular culture and the law. It was Diana’s exposure of the sexual politics of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha house that pushed this frail contradiction to extremes. That was the Diana effect. But that was then. Royalism has been rescued by the middle-class Middletons and by the loyalty of Britain’s political parties.

The Diana effect animated an inchoate republican sentiment of sorts. But there was no answer from Britain’s political parties. They are royalists and they never understood that sexual politics is not soap opera, that the personal is political. There is no Diana effect now.

Twitter: @beatrixcampbell

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