Can it really be 20 years since the car accident in Paris that left two young princes without their mother and posed questions about the future of the monarchy? As the commemorations, in real life and on television, have gathered pace in the approach to the anniversary, I have asked this question many times – not because, to me at least, it seems only yesterday, but because the sudden death of the Princess of Wales and the whole Diana phenomenon that preceded and followed it now seem to belong to distant age.
Of course, like so many, I remember exactly when and where I heard the news. As the Independent’s correspondent in Washington, I watched the events both close up and from afar. From afar, for obvious reasons: from the other side of the Atlantic, the public tears for “the people’s princess”, the fields of flowers in London and the very evident discomfiture of the Palace were all at one remove. But close up, because the time difference meant that the news of the car accident, the overnight bulletins, and the agonising press conference which announced her death were happening at prime time for US television. Riveted to the continually “breaking news”, I tried to imagine the response when an unsuspecting Britain woke up.
The next day, Washington, too, experienced its own echoes of the grief that by now was consuming Britain. From mid-morning on the Sunday, whole families were arriving by car to pay their respects at the British Embassy. Many were not the affluent, white, families who lived in nearby districts, but black and Hispanic families, who might never have been anywhere near the ethereal embassy district before. It was Labor Day weekend, and the embassy was deserted into Monday afternoon, when an emergency team was assembled to control what was fast becoming a floral mountain, and thank the dozens and dozens arriving.
On the day of the funeral, all Washington, or so it seemed, rose at an absurd hour of the morning to watch the live relay on television. From our seventh floor flat, I watched as the lights in surrounding blocks came on, and the television screens flickered into life. I remember the mixed response of the British commentators to the infinitely sad sight of the two princes following the coffin, and the confusion of the presenters as the sound of applause clearly rippling into Westminster Abbey following Charles Spencer’s tonally-perfect oration. Then the slow, incongruous procession up the deserted motorway, with flowers thrown from very 20th century bridges by very 20th century people on to a funeral procession that seemed almost medieval in its fusion of Christian and pagan.
In the weeks, months and years that followed, the immediate tributes gave way to more considered assessments that then swelled into books, with the running theme that the country, and more to the point perhaps the monarchy, would never be the same again. Diana was the outsider who had disturbed and even ended the status quo. She was a modern woman who had rebelled against a royal code that had changed little since Victoria’s time. She was a global celebrity persecuted by media excess. She was a victim of her in-laws who had closed ranks and left her to suffer alone. She was a wild creature whose conduct, both during her marriage and afterwards, had brought shame on the House of Windsor. For better or worse, she had said the unsayable, touched the untouchable; she had made the buttoned-up British finally relax their upper lip.
Twenty years on – and the reason why the age of Diana seems to me so much longer ago – is that I am not sure how much she did really change, either about the monarchy or about Britain. There are small things, to be sure. There may be – a little – more emotion on show in public life. Applause has become an accepted form of funereal tribute, in a cathedral quite as much as at a football stadium. Diana’s own admission of her struggles may have brought mental health somewhat more into the open – and her sons, in the causes they support and the way they have now spoken about their bereavement, have taken that a little further.
Another legacy of Diana might perhaps be discerned in the fact that there was no quibbling, or so it seemed – about William’s choice of a commoner bride, and Harry is pursuing a private life with rather more freedom, or so again it seems, than was granted to the late Princess Margaret in her day. Prince Charles married his long-time mistress, herself a divorcee, and the jury is still out on whether she will be Queen. But how much of this is a reflection of broader social progress over a generation or more, and how much really reflects lessons learned from Diana’s attitude to life or the way she was treated?
Despite what appeared to be a sense of disorientation on the part of the Royal Family after Diana’s death – the Queen’s belated broadcast being the most public manifestation – and talk of the monarchy’s days being numbered – it is hard to see that anything much, institutionally, has really changed. Yes, it is now permitted for a flag – the Union flag – to be lowered to half-mast over Buckingham Palace. Yes, the first-born may now inherit the Crown, even if she is a woman.
But the ship of the British monarchy, if ever it was threatened with sinking, seems to have steadied long since. Has there been any real shift in relations between Palace and people? The music, security and sponsorship may be new, but ticketed picnics in the Mall for royal weddings or jubilees look and feel little different from the paternalistic celebrations of half a century or more ago.
If ever there was any thought of a pared-down, less remote monarchy on the Nordic model, the moment has passed (and William taking the wheel of his father’s Aston Martin certainly doesn’t count). Nor do hospital visits after disasters or royal walkabouts on tour. How much shrinking of the Civil List has there been? What expectation is there that those outside the immediate line of succession should get a job, pursue a career even (except by choice)?
And how much does the life of Prince William and his family really differ, in its privilege and remoteness, from that of his father, even his grandfather? Or, put another way, how much does it resemble that of “ordinary” people? Katherine’s family may have been made more welcome at court than Diana’s was, but social and class fluidity this is not. The inquest into Diana’s death, when it was eventually held, showed snobbery and condescension to be alive and well – and not only towards the Fayed family.
A generous, or optimistic, soul might argue that Diana’s greatest legacy is the love match her elder son was free to make, the happy family life they appear to enjoy, and the prospect – in the fullness of time – of a King and Queen who will throw open the windows to some fresh Nordic air. That could be a long while in coming, though. In the meantime, the age of Diana appears little more than a distant and exotic interlude that serves to illustrate only the resilience of our institutions and how very much things have remained the same.
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