Rite of passage

The mass mourning was extraordinary. But what, to a historian, did Diana's death reveal about the British?

Ross McKibbin
Sunday 30 August 1998 00:02

THE WEEK before Princess Diana's funeral and the funeral itself were, it is generally agreed, a remarkable moment in the history of modern Britain, but most of us, despite broadsheet press commentary which was frequently sensible and thoughtful, have found it difficult to understand or even to know what happened. And this, of course, is due to the fact that the dominant intellectual categories of the 20th century are secular and rational: we are in a sense taught not to be able to understand such "irrational" phenomena as the reaction to Diana's death, or indeed anything to do with public attitudes to royalty, and are frequently embarrassed if asked to do so. Historians of the 20th century are particularly disabled - historians of medieval religion or Byzantinists at least know what questions to ask. Furthermore, we are compelled to measure things which are almost immeasurable. The great majority of the population, after all, did not leave flowers in front of the palaces or anywhere else. Over one-quarter of the adult population did not even watch the funeral on television. Most of those who were there were not weeping. Does that mean they were emotionally unaffected? On the other hand, many more watched the funeral on television than watched the Euro 96 England-Germany match, hitherto the record-breaker. Does that mean we feel more intensely about Diana than about the national game - or simply that more women watched the funeral than watch soccer? And, in any case, can people articulate what they feel in ways we can understand? In due course we might know these things but at the moment we do not.

This is why historians and sociologists of the 20th century have approached the subject of royalty and its audience gingerly, and few have done so at all. However, by coincidence, the first and still the most sustained attempt to understand our reactions to royalty was published exactly 61 years ago; and it was, also by coincidence, a study of a single royal event. This was Mass-Observation's study of King George VI's coronation in 1937 - May 12. Two hundred "observers" were posted about the country and instructed to note what they observed; with the exception of those who kept a record of what they themselves felt, they were not to intrude or act as mediators - simply to observe. There are all sorts of problems with Mass-Observation's techniques, as any historian knows, and they have not been universally admired - the sociologist TH Marshall thought these contemporary reprints of British life by members of the public at least in part "moonshine". It is also true that observers, though instructed merely to record the ordinary and everyday, tended to record the extraordinary on grounds of interest and inevitably "edited" what they saw (since "facts" do not speak for themselves), but it is unlikely, given that they were trying to measure degrees of emotions and sentiment, that anybody will ever do much better.

The possibilities and limitations of Mass-Observation were apparent to anyone who was in London the week that Diana died, particularly in the Mall or outside the palaces. I recorded my own impressions in as mass- observant a way as I could and tried to come to conclusions consonant with what I "saw". In the end, my regard for Mass-Observation and what they achieved was enhanced, since I found it difficult to reach conclusions which were anything more than tentative in face of evidence that was quite intractable. And it is the case that one tends to notice the extraordinary or unexpected: I expected, for instance, the great banks of flowers but failed to anticipate that they would produce a very pungent, sweet smell which will affect, I am sure, how everyone remembers the scene. One of my strongest memories of the Mall was of something absolutely untypical: an elderly black woman singing hymns in a cracked voice without regard for anyone else. She was singing for Diana alone. More typically, almost every bouquet was accompanied by a card, letter or poem. Not everyone gave flowers: there were many posters and manifestos attached to trees or railings. A very large proportion of the bouquets and messages - probably a majority - came from children. How far there were parental guiding hands in all this is hard to say; the language (and spelling) suggests not much. At a rough guess, I would say there were an unrepresentative number of cards and letters from Asian children, though that could be wrong. As many people noted, the whole atmosphere was very "democratic"; rarely can the railings of our royal palaces have been treated with such disrespect. There were innumerable candles, many intended to be votive, and some so large they could only have been bought at an ecclesiastical supplier.

As to the people, a steady day-long stream became a flood after six. Many were parents (frequently both parents) with children, but the population as a whole seemed fairly well represented. The majority were women, but only just. There were many "businessmen" (for want of a better word), with dark suits and briefcases, who were bringing flowers - and this again was a surprise. Most striking, and something confirmed on the day of the funeral, were the large numbers of young couples, with as many men as women holding flowers. The queues of those waiting to sign the books of condolence increased throughout the week. Once more the majority were women, but not a large majority. I think the queue was disproportionately non-white, but that is said without much conviction. There seemed to be a considerable number of tourists both in the queue, Americans particularly, and in the crowd, where a great many Italians and Spaniards were taking photographs. There is a view that the reaction to Diana's death represents a "Mediterraneanisation" of our culture, but the slightly stunned look many of these Italians and Spaniards wore suggests not.

Making sense of this is not easy. The tendency has been to read into these events a profound change in British life, but the evidence points in different directions. Most of the letters and poems, for example, were written in an instantly recognisable, though very heightened, graveyard style of the mid-19th century. The 20th century has been bad at devising a language of grief and mourning: the result is that the feeling for Diana has resorted to rhetorical conventions which in other circumstances we would regard as out-dated. On the other hand, there is a timelessness, too, about our responses: we are surprised that so many people seemed to have a quasi- religious view of Diana. But throughout the 20th century observers have been "surprised". In 1935, 1936 and 1937, years of many royal events, Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, was astonished at the "recrudescence of sheer superstition" surrounding the monarchy. People endlessly spoke of "royal weather"; there was much publicity given to a crippled Scottish boy who learned to walk "after" having met GeorgeV; in 1939 it was alleged that the inhabitants of Southwold crowded around George Vl to "touch" him for his magical curative powers. These stories are very similar to those which appeared about Diana and the effect she had on the ill. Their recovery, it is said, has been "like a miracle": what is 20th-century about that is the care people take not to say: "It's a miracle." But there is no reason, even allowing for 20th-century caution, to think that the enormous fund of popular "religion" which surprised Geoffrey Gorer in the early Fifties has much diminished. He noted the widespread belief in astrology, spiritualism, an afterlife, in the power of prayer, charms and good luck, which he attributed to the feeling of helplessness which (he thought) so many people had about their own lives. I do not think this has much changed.

The memorial literature also underlines the extent to which people believe, as Diana herself believed, that the social good depends on individual goodness, kindness, understanding and, above all, love. Some have argued that this belief stands for progress, for the emergence of a new and gentle Britain. Certainly, humane sentiments of that kind represent a repudiation of the hard-faced values dominant over the past 20 years. That this is progress, however, is more doubtful: it is highly traditional to believe that the social good is dependent on individual goodness. Moreover this way of thinking gives Diana semi-magical qualities, thereby reinforcing the age-old notion that royalty is magical. In fact, Diana's social authority depended on political powerlessness. As Freud's biographer, Ernest Jones, argued of George V (and the argument holds for Diana), once the monarch becomes divorced from the discharge of political power, once government "decomposes" into two persons, one "untouchable, irremovable and sacrosanct" (the king), and the other "vulnerable in such a degree that sooner or later he will surely be destroyed" (the prime minister), the king is held to be "above criticism". As such, it becomes difficult for him to be unpopular. Hence the paradox of Diana's hold on our emotions: its strength was in direct relation to her political powerlessness. It is unlikely that flowers will be strewn in the path of Lady Thatcher's coffin, and she was certainly "destroyed", but, unlike Diana, she wielded power and achieved what she wanted.

It has been widely argued that Diana's enormous popularity is a result (perhaps even a cause of) the "feminisation" of our values, which are now thought to be softer and less aggressive, a process accompanied by the "Catholicisation" of our public ceremonies. There may be some truth to this and it could be related to the fact that such a small proportion of the male population has had any experience of the Armed Forces. One thing which does seem to be new is the willingness of young men to grieve publicly in a "feminine" way. This was very apparent both before Diana's funeral and at the funeral itself, but was first manifested after the deaths at Hillsborough, when Liverpool's Anfield Stadium was thick with bouquets and gifts (usually supporters' club scarves). And there was nothing very Protestant about the mourning or the funeral: not merely the lack of restraint but the fact that both Earl Spencer and Prince Charles crossed themselves - an act which would have brought the monarchy down a generation ago. I doubt, however, that this is as new as it appears: the mid-Victorians, for instance, would have found it all much more familiar . My guess is that the stoicism thought to be typical of the British character is a product of the later 19th century and reached its apogee in the first 50 years of the 20th. And even this is perhaps a fiction. Mass-Observation of May 12 describes very unbuttoned crowds whose behaviour, if not extravagant, was not restrained. In a couple of cases the lack of restraint is almost suspicious. Outsiders had two stereotypes of the British: there was the famous discipline and constraint, but there were the excitable, partisan crowds, even more excitable than the Italians, especially at sporting matches. Arguably, what is exceptional in British history is not the extravagance but the stiff upper lip.

And we should remember who was being buried. The three great public funerals within living memory - George VI, Churchill and Mountbatten - were all heroic males intimately associated with war and empire. Diana was the reverse of this, and the kind of mourning associated with them would have been wholly inappropriate for her. Diana stood for the most traditional image of woman. The first to leave flowers, cards and letters were children, and they made the running. This reinforced the picture of her, not as heroic but as a loving mother who cared for the outcast - her "constituency of the rejected", as Earl Spencer rather craftily put it. More difficult to explain, as with the whole phenomenon, was the intensity with which these traditional attitudes were expressed. It was clear from the beginning that in many people's minds the Queen of Hearts was close to the Queen of Heaven. And since this Queen was wounded and vulnerable the identifications became stronger. Nor is there much doubt that Diana's physical appearance, like Eva Peron's in her last days, was what many thought the Queen of Heaven's should be: blonde, beautiful and soulful. This should not be underrated.

Although Diana's appeal is largely traditional, it is also eclectic. Who else could bring the Queen Mother, Tom Cruise and Ruby Wax to the same ceremony? Her friendship with many of the heavyweights of popular culture, and their attendance at the funeral, evoked a world of strong pleasures and emotional stimulation very attractive to young adults. Again, this is not as new as it appears: the future Edward VIII, as Prince of Wales, carefully cultivated his relationships with the stars of prewar popular culture and that - what in those years was always called "glamour" - was undoubtedly an element in his enormous popularity. Then too, the media were problematic in his life as they were in Diana's. What role they played in the days after Diana's death is, like so much else, almost unknowable, since the relationship between the media and the audience is usually reciprocal. In this case, the first steps were taken spontaneously and it is the first steps which count. The original decision to bring flowers and cards to the palaces was not the media's, although the extent of media reporting might well have made those who had not thought of doing so feel they should. Equally, the behaviour of the huge numbers who watched the hearse on its way north might have been influenced by what they had seen on television of the behaviour of the crowds in Central London, but the applauding of the hearse and the throwing of flowers at it were also clearly spontaneous - an instinctive and moving awareness of the funeral service as a rite of passage. Although it was said that to complain of the media's excessive attention to Diana in death was risky, in practice many people did complain. A guess is that large numbers thought the press was overdoing it, but were "drawn in despite themselves", as Mass-Observation said of George VI's coronation.

In 1953, in a famous article, Edward Shils and Michael Young argued that popular celebration of the present Queen's coronation marked a "degree of moral unity equalled by no other large national state". Can we say the same of Diana's death? In Shils and Young's terms almost certainly not. In the first place, the popular reaction to her death was international - more intense in Britain perhaps, but definitely not confined to it. Diana really was the most famous woman in the world in life and the most famous person in death. If the reaction does mark "moral unity" it cannot be British alone. Does it mean that Britain is now more "democratic", less deferential; that in mourning her we were, as the Observer put it, "united against tradition"? There was certainly a strong whiff of 1789 in the royal family's return from Balmoral and they had a beleaguered look throughout; while the whole tone of the funeral was a long way from the House of Windsor. Our traditional elites are now held in much less respect than they were a generation ago, and that is no loss. The country's democratic potential is greater than ever; but that potential has not been realised, and the reaction to Diana's death demonstrates the limitations as well as the strengths of modern British democracy.

When Shils and Young wrote of Britain's almost unique moral unity they meant primarily that the industrial working class was more successfully integrated in Britain than in any other major country. That class now hardly exists and the political system which integrated it has not adjusted to its political and social decay. The result is that the economically and socially deprived are relatively more deprived today than they have been for over half a century, if not longer. The decline of a particular sense of the nation which Shils and Young (rightly or wrongly) identified in 1953 has left many out in the cold and no one (including the present Government) is inviting them back in. The exclusion of the poor has been accompanied by the triumph of individualist ideologies and the defeat of the idea of social solidarity. This bears on Diana: those two countries where Diana-worship is most intense, Britain and the United States, are not simply the two where celebrity and glamour are most admired, but where social solidarity is now weakest and individualism strongest. In them the remedy for social failure, poverty or homelessness is to be found in individual virtue. Love, care, goodness are no less valued, indeed are perhaps even more valued, but they are not thought to be found in the social sphere. The remedy for social exclusion or distress is individual action and individual virtue; the more the possessor of such virtue is associated with women's traditional qualities the more she is cherished.

When in the 19th century the Roman Catholic Church raised the Virgin in the battle against materialist or collectivist ideologies it knew what it was about. Diana, for many of the same reasons, in her turn became "saviour of the world", as one poster outside Kensington Palace put it. Much that happened after Diana's death involved powerful and generous emotions; but a democracy which admired her with such intensity is both incomplete and immature, and will always exclude those who apparently made up her "constituency".

! This article, originally published in the 'London Review of Books', is reprinted in the collection 'After Diana' (Verso, pounds 10).

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in