Diana 1961-1997: Hard lessons for the Firm

Against all her instincts, the Queen is starting to rewrite protocol, reports Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst@c_blackhurst
Saturday 06 September 1997 23:02

Students of great public relations disasters will pore over the performance of the Royal Family at Balmoral last Sunday.

The decision to take the Princes William and Harry, who had just lost their mother, to church would, says a royal-watcher, have been taken after consultation with the Queen. Experience suggests that any proposal that they should not attend would have met a strong rebuttal. "The Queen would have said, 'No, we will do what we have always done.' So they went to church."

They wore their father's wardrobe of suits and ties, as opposed to their mother's of jeans and sweat-shirts. Their father's valet had laid out his kilt. The Queen later went for a ride on a white horse. Over Balmoral, the Royal Standard flew at full-mast. Early in the week, in phrases trotted out with a degree of pride by deferential court-watchers, it was explained that this was very much business as usual. The bereaved princes were being taught, we were told, the most important lesson of becoming a royal, of continuity: the king is dead, long live the king.

Diana, Princess of Wales would have hated it.

She had hinted at her view of the monarchy in her Panorama interview: a stodgy, archaic institution out of step with modern Britain. But for all the claims made of her last week, the People's Princess was not one of the people. She was born into a family far older than the Windsors and with a silver spoon in her mouth, but took her sons to theme parks and McDonald's. She may not have been one of the people, but as was being said last week on the Mall, at Kensington Palace, and at Althorp, she was closer to the people than the rest of "them". By "them" - a word spat out frequently, and unprecedentedly in British life, with real venom - they meant the Royal Family. The Queen's address softened the mood. In her broadcast, the Queen spoke of the "lessons to be drawn from her life, and from the extraordinary and moving reaction to her death". And their conduct yesterday can only have evoked sympathy.

UNTIL that tide of grief, it was always assumed at the BBC, where these things are regularly rehearsed, that the Queen Mother's demise would be the occasion when the whole country came together to mourn. Likewise if the Queen was to die, it was thought, the country would stand still, united in emotion. Not any more. Last week has presented the BBC with a real dilemma: suddenly the days of mourning long planned for the death of "a major royal" are having to be seriously revised.

Respect is diminished; affection has fallen away. Outside Westminster Abbey, June Rolls from Sevenoaks summed up the change: "I can remember when we used to sing 'God Save the Queen' and it would leave a lump in your throat. It doesn't seem to mean anything any more."

In the Mall it was not hard to see why. Beyond the crowds and the flowers pressed into the railings, Buckingham Palace stood empty, cold, isolated. At Balmoral "the Firm", as the members of the Royal Family like to call the monarchy, dusted off mourning manuals and followed them to the letter. Protocol - "rules of behaviour for formal occasions" as it is defined - dictated no public outpouring, no hint of weakness.

Somebody, perhaps, could have told them rules are sometimes meant to be broken. But theirs is a firm like no other. It has no vitality or dynamism. Its shareholders often do less than a full day's work for their money. They take few risks, there is no movement of supply and demand to drive their dividends down. They rarely meet their customers - the public - except at invitation-only functions. Apart from the Queen's regular audience with the Prime Minister and meetings of the Privy Council which she chairs, the real world rarely intrudes on the deliberations of the directors.

Everywhere they go, they are surrounded by flunkies drawn from their same, public-school-educated, upper-class circle. Many firms these days have made strides towards equality of the sexes and of colour. Not the House of Windsor. The most senior jobs are held by a handful of advisers, often scions of aristocratic families themselves related to the Queen. After that there is a tier of middle managers, who, once they have reached a certain level of seniority, can progress no further. Senior employees are predominantly male, white and former armed forces officers or diplomats. Women - "girls" to the Duke of Edinburgh - tend to fill subservient, secretarial positions.

There is little promotion or demotion within the firm, no incentive to innovate, to try something new. Most progressive companies move their staff around and break down internal barriers. Not the Royal Family. Each member has their own office and staff. Jealousies and squabbles are rife.

The Queen, who chairs the board, is older than any of her employees and more experienced. Nobody can stand up to her, nobody can tell her she is wrong. All she has ever known is the court, with its rituals and etiquette. "The impetus against any change comes from her, from her devotion to history and her personality," says one royal commentator. "She is very good at saying 'no' and very poor at saying 'yes'. She is very good at saying something should not be done because it would not be proper."

In his biography of the Queen, Ben Pimlott quotes a former courtier: "Sometimes it was difficult to persuade her to do something outside the normal run of things." And, wrote Mr Pimlott, "There was a constant danger of clinging to habits present-day citizens could no longer relate to."

Instead of thinking about accessibility, image and public relations, employees of the Queen's firm worry desperately about keeping one's distance, deportment and conduct. The writer Fiammetta Rocco recalls that when she was on her way to meet Prince Philip for his first major interview for 25 years, she was told no fewer than three times of the need to curtsy. That was all the courtier taking her up the two flights of stairs to the Duke's office was concerned about.

A former girlfriend of the Prince of Wales tells how, when she was walking with him down the corridors of royal palaces, she always had to remain one step behind him. Until last week the experiences of Ms Rocco and the former girlfriend were all part of the royal mystique. Commoners could mock them, but more often the reaction was one of admiration that the royals were able to adhere to historic values and old ways.

THE QUEEN, of course, does retain power. She remains head of state. But her authority is not set in stone: if the people wanted to remove the monarchy they could. Last week, less than half a mile from the Mall, I bumped into one of the country's leading constitutional historians. I asked him if he thought Princess Diana's death and the aftermath could mark the end for the monarchy. He said, no, because replacing it would be costly and time-consuming, involving, for example, the rewording of at least 200 years' worth of royal prerogatives. That, surely, with crowds filling the Mall, was not the point.

In his choice of description for Princess Diana, Tony Blair did great damage to the royals. When she divorced, courtiers debated whether she should be allowed the acronym HRH, and took it away. Mr Blair, at a stroke, cut through their trivial, all-too-typical, argument.

But the Queen should be grateful to Mr Blair. His shrewd grasp of public relations, his uncanny knack of taking the national pulse, may have been enough to save her from herself. Friday's broadcast, the walkabout among the grieving crowds, and flying the Union flag at half-mast over Buckingham Palace yesterday went against all her instincts. Something, she was being told, had to give.

Within the court, officials and the Royal Family have seen themselves attacked as never before. Protocol, the fixed rules they cling to, has been rewritten by popular demand. What happens next time? What if a national hero dies and the people want a response? Thanks to Princess Diana, first in her determination not to be cowed in her Panorama interview and now in her death, daylight has flooded in upon the monarchy. It will never be the same again. Even the Queen, when she spoke of lessons to be learnt, may have realised that.

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