Issue 222 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published August/September 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review
It is always alarming when we are informed that 'everyone' feels the same way about an issue. Such times usually occur when there are wars or deaths in the royal family. Such was the case with the sudden death of Princess Diana last year. The whole nation was united, we were told, behind our new and photogenic prime minister, in mourning the 'people's princess'. She expressed the apparent opposite of the other royals: young, attractive, democratic, caring. Her death would weaken the monarchy and usher in a new caring society.
Facts were rarely allowed to intrude into this hallowed image. Diana was not of course a woman of the people but a privileged aristocrat who lived in a palace. Nothing in her life would have led her to understand the lives of most people. Her personal expenditure per week was higher than a year's worth of single parent benefit. She was famed for charity work but left nothing to charity in her multi-million pound will. At the time of her death she was being Increasingly criticised in the press for her many holidays and jetset lifestyle. Although millions did indeed mourn her death, the fact that 41 percent of televisions In Britain stayed off during her funeral tells us that there was a very different side to the story.
Some reflection of this other side is contained in a new book, After Diana, a series of essays which attempt to offer some explanation for the seemingly extraordinary events which followed her death. It provides a welcome antidote to the gushing adulation and sentimentality with which we were bombarded then, and again now on the anniversary of her death. The contributors include journalists, historians and novelists and their writing encompasses a wide variety of viewpoints and stances ranging from the satirical to the esoteric. There is no consensus on the reasons for the 'Diana phenomenon' but there are recurring themes which run through the contributions. The relationship between government, monarchy and the British people is examined by many of the writers. Some have a real resonance for many of us. So feminist lecturer Elizabeth Wilson writes:
'The Prime Minister Tony Blair played an important role in encouraging the expression of emotion by his own reaction to the death of the "people's princess" and managed to create the Impression that there was a link between the nation's mourning and the victory of the labour Party in the May 1997 election. The rejoicing on election night seemed to be an outpouring of relief that the country had finally got rid of those embarrassingly clapped-out Tories and... we had done it without ditching any of their policies! For me the hidden oblique politics of Diana's death were profoundly conservative. They masqueraded as progressive, but they were populist. They claimed to be modern, reforming, a call for change, but they were undemocratic and intolerant.'
Diana: icon of our times?
Not all of the essays are as fiercely critical as the publicity might imply. And some are quite weird. Richard Coles, formerly of The Communards, was clearly charmed by her and in admiration of her work with Aids victim. Inexplicably he writes of her that 'she managed to be both royal and unroyal simultaneously, but it also hints at another mysterious myth, another key element in her extraordinary make-up. Diana was a gay man.' This he explains with, 'She evolved a complex identification with the narratives which shape contemporary gay identity.'
Naomi Segal attempts to explain our perception of Diana and Diana's view of the world through an analysis of bulima, but she does write on the subject of the princess's much vaunted radiance. She says, 'Only our gaze made Diana look radiant.'
Among the best of the essays is one from the radical journalist Christopher Hitchens. He writes in diary form about the events of the week and his responses to them. Many of these responses are made publicly since, as a renowned republican, he was invited to debate the events and their implications on a series of television programmes in the US. He writes with wit and perspicacity. What a breath of fresh air he must have been. Other little nuggets include Christopher Hird's review of Kitty Kelley's book, The Royals. The revelations would surely make any reader a republican.
Despite all that has been said, the events of last September are not unique in history. Alexander Cockburn writes, 'And so now that flowers heaped outside Kensington Palace have long since turned to dust, what weight should Diana carry in the economy of mourning? The best answer was offered by Percy Bysshe Shelley in his Address to the People on the death of the Princess Charlotte'. This was written in November of 1817, after the passing in childbirth of this daughter of George IV. Shelley juxtaposed Charlotte's end to the almost simultaneous execution of three Luddites, framed by the government of the day.
The death of Charlotte, Shelley concluded was a 'private grief. As for the barbarous execution by hanging and quartering of the three labourers Shelley says, 'Let us follow the corpse of British Liberty slowly and reverentially to its tomb: and if some glorious phantom should appear, and make its throne of broken swords and sceptres and royal crowns trampled in the dust, let us say the Spirit of Liberty has arisen from its grave and left all that was gross and mortal there, and kneel down and worship it as our Queen.'
After Diana edited by Mandy Merck Verso £10