What would Princess Diana’s life have been like if she had lived?

Embroiled in culture wars or living the high life in exile abroad, Sean O’ Grady explores what Princess Diana’s life might have been like, had the Princess of Wales been celebrating her 60th birthday this year

Sean O' Grady
Wednesday 30 June 2021 16:47
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Now that we’re all well into the “Diana at 60” tributes, it’s perhaps worth exploring one of the more plausible “what ifs” of history: What if the Princess of Wales had not been in the car crash that took her life on the night of the 31 August 1997, in Paris? What if Diana had still been around to enjoy her 60th birthday party? What would life have been like for her and the monarchy over the last quarter century or so?

In the first place, the monarchy as an institution would not have undergone the sudden and massive loss of popularity it suffered in the aftermath of her death, a time when even the most slavishly royalist elements of the press and public started to wonder whether the Queen and the rest of the firm had lost their touch.

The refusal to come straight to London from isolation in Balmoral; the stubborn attachment to protocol that kept the royal standard flying at full mast over Buckingham Palace; the apparent indifference of the royals to the outpouring of public grief (a very un-British display of emotion), compounded to foster a general feeling that the legacy of “the people’s princess” – as Tony Blair later described her – was not being honoured properly.

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Taking the prime minister’s advice to return to London avoided a riot; but Diana almost finished the entire House of Windsor from beyond the grave. It was a moment of extreme jeopardy that the royals have largely recovered from, but one that would obviously have been avoided had Princess Diana walked away from the wreckage of the Mercedes-Benz limousine in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel.

That said, Diana would probably have been “trolling” (as we say these days) her ex-husband and his family, merely by her presence. With her humanitarian charitable work, she would inevitably have become closer to the New Labour government and its main principal personalities. Alastair Campbell’s dairies suggest that those at the top of New Labour liked and respected her, and you can’t really see her getting on with William Hague.

Diana never had much interest in politics, but would have found herself being politicised, a trend that would have persisted for some time

Towards the end of her life, when she was highlighting the continuing loss of life from landmines in former conflict zones such as Mozambique, one Conservative defence minister described Diana, with no sense of irony, as a “loose cannon”, which she found bewildering. In Nicolas Soames, a former equerry and an ally of Charles and another minister in the Major government, she had another critic, ready to denounce her as unhinged. Diana never had much interest in politics, but would have found herself being politicised, a trend that would have persisted for some time. The press would have exaggerated arguments, the public would have taken sides and her reputation would have suffered as a result form a gentle long-term politicisation.

As with her championing of people with HIV/Aids back in the 1980s, by the 2010s she would have emerged as a “woke” icon, with all it implies. For garish reasons, good and bad, she wouldn’t have suffered the same campaign of hate that has engulfed Meghan Markle, but the tensions around her spoken views would have intensified. Diana would not, in other words, have been able to avoid the culture wars.

Her continuing presence on planet earth would have made Prince Charles’ life immeasurably more difficult. Through no fault of her own, Diana outshone and overshadowed him when she was his wife, and still as the divorcee Diana, Princess of Wales she would have probably continued to do so. The sense of loss about what might have been had he not messed up the marriage would always have been hanging in the air around him, and he’d have to put up with her grabbing the front pages and the magazine covers until this day. He’d be permanently irritated.

Princess Diana

If Diana had lived, it would have made Charles’ attempts to marry and legitimise his relationship with Camilla Parker-Bowles still more difficult. The Queen would surely have been even less happy about his second marriage with Diana still alive. In the end Charles and Camilla probably could not be kept apart, even with Her Majesty’s hostility, it would have taken longer and have had to be much lower key. His rehabilitation was always going to be difficult, though. Diana famously said in the Martin Bashir interview that she thought the Prince of Wales hadn’t got what it took to be king and suggested that William would be better in “the top job”. She’d have continued to voice that opinion and divide the public.

A few volumes of memoirs would have brought some money in, if only for the charities, and filled in yet more gruesome details about her struggle with bulimia, Charles’ infidelity and the less lovable eccentricities of the Windsors.

Diana would no doubt have been as devoted a mum as she had always been to her “boys”, but on the basis of what we’ve seen since, it’s possible that Prince William would have fallen more under the influence of the Palace than did Prince Harry. She’d have offered Kate the benefit of her advice and experience, and the same to Meghan. During her recent Oprah interview, Meghan stated that she hadn’t really understood what she was getting herself into when she joined the British royal family – a clan like no other on earth. That would emphatically not have been the case if she’d been given a through briefing by Diana. Frankly, it might have been enough to make Meghan and Harry think again about marriage – or hasten their effective abdication and their move abroad. Harry would, however, obviously not have had the £10 million inheritance from his mother’s estate, and thus been further restricted in his financial and personal autonomy.

Diana and Charles on their wedding day

Where would Diana have ended up? There seems a certain logic with refugees from the House of Windsor that they wind up in exile. Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson spent their lives as Duke and Duchess of Windsor in France, dividing their time between a grand mansion in the Bois de Boulanger outside Paris and a house in the south, as well as frequent trips to America. Harry and Meghan have established themselves in California. Diana might well have found herself abroad, too.

Would she have had more children? She was of course only 36 when she died. But her love life was basically a long line of disappointments, with Charles, James Gilbey, Will Carling and James Hewitt variously letting her down. Her one love that offered much stability was with the heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, who she found “drop dead gorgeous.” He, though, found the media attention difficult to bear, and marrying Diana would have meant the end of his career in medicine. Perhaps Dodi Fayed would have been “the next one”, as he had bought a ring in readiness?

There seems a certain logic with refugees from the House of Windsor that they wind up in exile. Diana might well have found herself abroad, too.

If Diana had been unlucky after she’d recovered from the car accident, life could have been quite miserable, though. She may easily have found herself betrayed by more dismal men men in the most humiliating way through kiss and tell stories in the tabloids – we’ve seen enough of this as it is. The Palace could have launched their own guerrilla war against her, leaking tales of breakdowns and self-harm. She may have drifted out of her charity work and into the aimless life of the super-rich, a sort of playgirl hanging around on yachts, increasingly alienated from the British people.

It’s a nicer thought to consider that if Diana had been lucky, she may have found a new supportive partner, kept busy with her philanthropy work and remained out of politics and the future of the monarchy as much as she could, though always making the case for a modernised in-touch institution. She’d have continued to be a fashion icon and would have celebrated growing old as a woman; she’d have been a doting grandmother to her five grandchildren. However it may have panned out, it would have been a pleasure to have her around to see her collect her freedom pass.

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