Where others fear to tread

Profile: Diana, Princess of Wales

Henry Porter
Sunday 19 January 1997 00:02 GMT

It Is doubtful whether anyone in Buckingham Palace, the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office has read the bestseller by Daniel Goleman called Emotional Intelligence. If they had, they would begin to understand what they were dealing with in Diana, Princess of Wales, who has this week confounded the best minds of the Government and palace by walking through a minefield in Angola at the same time as detonating two remote devices, one under her former husband who was struggling with a new initiative in Edinburgh, and the other under a hapless government minister.

Her power to disrupt the best-laid plans of the Establishment must seem almost supernatural to the officials who decided that Diana could take part in the Red Cross-sponsored visit without causing too much trouble. After all, she would be well out of the way and surely she could do no harm in Britain while comforting the children who had lost their limbs in those treacherous maize fields.

But the officials never take into account the extraordinary force of her presence which is roughly a combination of Eva Peron's crowd-pulling power and Tina Brown's sense of what is hot and new. Above all they never grasp that news moves with Diana and however distant and nugatory an issue seems to be, once she has conferred her attention, it becomes a highly topical and volatile subject.

Ministers do well to keep their heads down, for there is absolutely no percentage in taking on the Princess. And yet they seem unable to resist it as was evident last week when an obscure government drone named Earl Howe told journalists that she was a loose cannon and that she should not meddle in politics. She replied the next day by walking through a minefield wearing body armour and a protective visor. The contrast could not have been more striking. While Diana was in Africa risking her fair neck, a sleek Tory was rubbishing her over a three-course meal in central London.

No points to the minister, and one can imagine the reactions of the Tory high command as they looked at Thursday's pictures of her in the minefield: "Just a little to the left ma'am, just a few feet please!"

People like Lord Howe would never understand that Diana operates on a different plane to them. Where their actions are logical, cool and well formulated, hers are instinctive, direct and powered by certainty. She is, in fact, the exemplar of the emotionally intelligent success first outlined in Dr Goleman's book, which suggests that people with a high IQ often flounder while those of modest intellectual gifts flourish. The blurb alone should be enough to send Lord Howe to the nearest bookshop. It reads: "The author shows how the vital qualities of emotional intelligence - self-awareness, impulse control, persistence, self-motivation, empathy and social deftness can be nurtured and strengthened in all of us."

They are very much attributes that have appeared in Diana since she was first separated and began the long self-examination in the care of the psychologist Susie Orbach. She emerged a little over a year ago in fighting spirit to give the Panorama interview - surely the least testing cross- examination in the programme's history - and then to negotiate her divorce settlement. Things have fallen pretty well for her: title, access, money and independence were all granted with degrees of generosity and political finesse so that she has been able to turn her attention to the business of reinvention.

This is the crucial part of Diana's star quality and the reason why the media never tires of her. Over the years we have seen the child bride, the demure mother, the deserted wife, the victim, the careless lover, the comforter and the patient. Not all the roles were of her own design but lately she has shown much more "self-motivation" and "impulse control", that is to say she shapes her own image. She is less obvious than Madonna who refashions herself from one year to the next, but it is fundamentally the same process. Diana's appearance in a fly-blown press conference wearing jeans and sneakers, clutching a clipboard and asking questions about the psychological effects of amputation marks a new stage. It suggests that we may add aid worker to the list of roles. And certainly this week's pictures of her in body armour bestow a new and unassailable chic on the woman who was said in the Eighties to be a compulsive shopper.

There is a brilliant part to Diana's personality. While she has as many faults as the average person, she always manages to turn them to her advantage. When, for example she was unfaithful to her husband she presented the affair as an abuse of her trusting nature. Her mistakes are represented as journeys of self-discovery, incremental advances to a state which lies somewhere between absolute stardom and goodness.

This takes an extraordinary effort of will and one only has to contrast her diary this last week with that of the Duchess of York, who emerged rake-thin to sign a pounds 1m contract with Weight Watchers, to appreciate the intelligence of Diana's calculations. The contrast also with the Prince of Wales, who began to publicise the work of the Prince's Trust and to present himself as a more down-to-earth bloke, is also instructive. While he looked ill-at-ease and tongue-tied in Edinburgh, she declared with all her usual sweet certainty: "The fact is, I am a humanitarian figure. I always have been and always will be."

The development of her social concerns has always been well-timed to anticipate public interest. She supported the cause of the homeless by taking her children to see where people slept rough in London and did much to raise the concern about the spread of Aids, visiting Aids sufferers in hospital. She seems to relate very well to people's suffering. Unlike the rest of the Royal Family, she has little physical reserve and is not afraid of the dying child, the terminal HIV patient, the young woman whose life has been wrecked by a landmine. To these people she offers genuine comfort. As Lord Deedes writing in the Daily Telegraph, said: "She has the yearning so many of our younger people have today to take a hand in the world's woes and tie up wounds, to cherish the afflicted."

This is the quality of empathy that Goleman's book talks about and which in her case is responsible for a new strength. She knows what she wants to do and now seems very much more capable of handling herself. This week she brushed off the row at Westminster as a distraction which had "meant things went off the rails for five minutes and then went back on again. It does happen when a campaign is entwined in a political issue".

Lord Howe was quite wrong to suggest that campaigning for a world-wide ban on landmines is taking up a party political position, and he should have understood that to accuse her of this, even in an off-the-record briefing, was extremely stupid. But in the wider sense he is right.

Diana is very much a political figure, for the history of her last six years represents a struggle between the old and new, between the self- interest of the Establishment and supposed empathetic values of New Labour. She may not have breathed a word of support for Tony Blair but it is inferred, if only because her critics such as Lord Howe and Nicholas Soames are supplied by the right.

What is compelling about New Diana is the sureness of her touch, but also her real isolation. She is no longer part of anything: the Royal Family has little to do with her; her children are away at boarding school or on activity holidays with their father; she seems to see almost nothing of her brother or mother; and her friends are dropped as she finds new interests and passions. This state suits her, and although her love for children is obvious, there is a sense that she is content on this lonely route and relishes the dramas and turns that lie ahead. For she is now in control and is making for herself a completely unique position, which is neither royal nor political, but is nevertheless very powerful. This week she used that power to focus the West's attention on a terrible problem. We should be grateful to her for doing it, but at the same time we should also recognise that one day they will be writing musicals about her.

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