Diana 1961-1997: The commentators - The Palace will not be able to cope with a Saint Diana

Polly Toynbee
Sunday 31 August 1997 23:02

Where does the tragedy of Diana, Princess of Wales' death leave the monarchy? Constitutional experts were quick yesterday to say that it would make no difference, that it was an irrelevance. "Of no constitutional consequence whatever," said Lord Blake, echoed by others. Technically, of course they are right. Constitutionally, she was nothing.

But Princess Diana's life as a royal changed everything for the monarchy. She made the personal political for them. The drama surrounding every twist and turn of her story, from her engagement to her divorce and her last romance, made the emotional a constitutional question. The Charles and Diana saga is the main explanation for the astonishing fall in the popularity of the monarchy. Why else did a recent Mori poll find that 55 per cent of the people now think the country would be better off or at least no worse off as a republic?

Her story is not over yet for the monarchy. Diana dead may threaten their stability and tranquillity as strongly, if not more so than the divorced Diana they could not silence. The world's most famous woman now enters the stratosphere of dead icons, from Princess Grace to Marilyn Monroe. More than either of those, in this celebrity-transfixed age where even Elvis has spawned a religion, the tributes flowing in suggest a mantle of modern sainthood falling upon her. "She was the people's princess and that is how she will be stay in our hearts and our memories forever," said an emotion-filled Prime Minister, setting that tone.

Diana the Difficult was a problem the palace could tackle but Saint Diana is something the palace can never contend with. There can be no more palace briefings and malevolent whisperings against her now. No more highly placed sources telling key opinion-formers that she is actually certifiably mad. She will no longer provide opportunities for them to mock her when she poses for fashion magazine front covers and then in the next breath begs the press to leave her alone. There will no more occasions to pour scorn on her good works, no more private sneers about her selling frocks whose true value was their titillating physical intimacy with her body. She will give no embarrassing interviews, offer the palace no more chances to say that she has broken royal protocol.

If her palace enemies hoped that as she got older she would have presented the world with an increasingly absurd and pathetic spectacle in her search for self-knowledge and love, both personal and public, then their hopes have been dashed. She will stay forever young and forever genuinely tragic. And they, her abusers and traducers, will go down in the Cult of Goddess Diana as the villains. Instead, her star will shine ever more brightly in the beyond where all is forgiven. Her faults, absurdities, confusions will all be forgotten in the overwhelmingly horrible calamity of her death. At last, she will be a pitiable "queen of the people's hearts" - that much-satirised phrase gaining poignancy with every passing year.

How can Prince Charles contend with that? The sorry spectacle of him at the funeral with his sons will summon up a thousand conflicting emotions, including a measure of outrage. Perhaps the mood of the royal fans will be forgiving. Perhaps they will take pity on him in all his contorted awkwardness, so ill at ease with everything in his life. Perhaps they will forgive Camilla, whom Diana fingered so firmly as the destroyer of her marriage. Maybe they will want Charles at last to find happiness, and the disappearance of the troublesome Diana will allow the royals to return to the safe, dull, tweedy Balmoral spirit of long ago. But perhaps not. He may become the demon king for worshippers of the Cult of the Goddess Diana. What if they hiss and turn away from him at public events, blaming him, hating him? How much of that could he stand?

Far worse, what if his sons blame him? It won't be long now before Prince William surfaces in his own right with "close friends", briefers and biographers to offer hints as to his state of mind. As we watch the face of that poor child at his mother's funeral, how can we begin to imagine his thoughts? Which of his difficult parents does he blame most? It would be hard to design a background and an upbringing as catastrophic as his has been, all his parents' affairs blazoned in grizzly detail across the press, from the Tampax to the James Hewitt humiliations. If he has survived all that, it will be something of a miracle.

Any psychologist might hazard the fear that this young boy's life risks continuing his dysfunctional family tradition, a damaging cycle of emotional deprivation at the top of society as predictable as any chronicled by social researchers among those at the bottom.

The one thing we do know is that he has a deep and well-founded hatred of the press. Now they have killed his mother, how is he to find some tolerable modus vivendi with them? For to be a successful heir and king is to know how to manage the media.

Does any of this matter? Does it threaten the monarchy? There is no republican political project anywhere worth the name. Labour has even postponed reforming the Lords, and Blair and his people are closer to and more effusive about the royals than any prime minister in recent history. Constitutionally, the monarchy is a non-issue.

And yet Diana's arrival and tragic departure from the royal scene may mark a trajectory that has nothing to do with politics and politicians. The erosion of public support may be met by a radical loss of self-confidence within the royal family itself. Can Charles take the strain? Diana was probably not inventing it when she maliciously suggested in her Panorama interview that he might not become king. But we know nothing of Prince William if he were to take the crown. All we can know is that the odds are strongly stacked against him being a more solid, balanced, self-sacrificing person than his parents. Could he really become more able than them to bear the almost intolerable life expected of a king in this media-driven age? Further erosion and implosion of the monarchy is more likely.

Whatever becomes of this stricken family, there, in the firmament above them will hover the problematic image of a woman whose power will not dim. Her story will be used and abused in a thousand ways, twisted and exaggerated, a constant weapon in the hands of enemies of Charles or Camilla. If some day the monarchy finally draws peacefully to a close, Diana's ghostly spirit will have played its part.

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