Don’t Speak – Diana’s death, majority mourning and the reinvention of royalty

[I am working an a book about the year 1997, the year that made the future. Made up of 26 short chapters, alphabetically labelled with one of '97's cultural highlights, it will offer a series of reflections and some polemics, about the year. This is an early draft of chapter 4. Any comments and improvements would be much appreciated. There is no referencing as yet... tut tut.]

Early in 1997 the American alt rock band No Doubt scored their biggest UK hit with the love song ‘Don’t Speak’. A catchy, upbeat melody belies the lyrical content of hurt, loss and betrayal. A traditional lover’s lament, the song was an unintended warning, an ominous foreshadowing of the almost 100% injunction against speaking in anything but the most reverential and grief-soaked fashion following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales on August 31st at the age of 36. She left behind two sons, and a week of unprecedented media coverage leading up to her funeral. Her life, the astonishing reaction to her death and the public response to the Royal Family at the time have had an enduring impact on the state of Britain’s royal family and its efforts to modernise and become more meaningful in the early 21st century. In the first week of September of 1997 there was indeed no doubt about the mood of the nation.

The lasting legacy of the Diana effect can be seen in an interview with her younger son, Prince Henry of Wales, (Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor) KCVO, commonly known as Prince Harry. Speaking with Newsweek and widely reported across the world, he described how he and his peers are ‘involved in modernizing the British monarchy’. His desire to make it more relevant to ordinary people, indeed his desire to be ‘ordinary’ he attributes to his mother ‘who took a huge part in showing [him] ordinary life’. The fifth in line to the throne includes in this exposure to ‘ordinary’ life being taken to see a ‘homeless man’. The desire for ordinariness is pervasive, he suggests, as not one of the possible inheritors of the throne wants to be monarch, but will undertake the role out of a sense of duty. This duty is in part predicated on his belief that the ‘British public and the whole world need institutions like’ the royal family.

In the immediate aftermath of Diana’s death, it was anything but clear that the British people felt the need for the monarchy – or not, in any case, the monarchy that was widely seen as aloof, cold, uncaring and responsible for the depredations Diana had suffered before her death at their hands. The overwhelming sense of loss and grief at Diana’s death had as its necessary corollary a hostile incredulity at the failure of the royal family to express its feelings or share in the national mourning.

This mourning was reported in the press and on television in a fashion that suggested that not only the royal family, but the fourth estate, too, was initially surprised by the response and very quickly, and almost uniformly, colluded with the consensus of grief and mandatory mourning. While it is undoubtedly true that for many, many people her death was felt as a very personal loss, the particular narrative that immediately developed was so pervasive and inclusive that it became almost impossible not to express one’s mourning.

 The tone was set by a truly brilliant speech delivered by Tony Blair, recently elected as the new Prime Minister. Outside of the local church in Trimdon, in his Sedgfield constituency, a black-suited and black-tied Blair, with his wife and daughter nearby, spoke briefly and eloquently in response to the single question, ‘Prime Minister, can we please have your reaction to the news?’. That phrase, ‘the news’ is telling: the media, whose job it is to report on the news allowed only one story to have any relevance or purpose: not ‘the news of Diana’s death’ or any version thereof, simply ‘the news’.

Blair’s performance is widely regarded as his finest in office, and was commemorated with a plaque on a stone in 2013 at the exact point where he stood while delivering it. Scripted by Alastair Campbell, and borrowing columnist Julie Burchill’s phrase, the ‘people’s princess’ the speech set the tone for the following week’s public discourses. Not only was he ‘devastated’ but that feeling of devastation is ‘like everyone else in the country today’ – not as prime minister but as a single manifestation of the total population’s feelings, Blair established the totality and unavoidability of the grief that we all must share. The nation itself is ‘in a state of shock’ and is ‘in mourning’ and ‘in grief’ that is ‘so deeply painful for us’. He praises her as a wonderful and warm human being, and alludes to the troubled life she led (but without mentioning the royal family). Her ability to give joy and comfort is praised, as is her humanitarian work with the sick and dying, with children (although no mention of her work to reduce landmine. production and use). Her compassion and her humanity are not only mentioned but our experience of them is described in the semi-liturgical fashion that would see an almost immediate hagiography develop around her ‘revelation’. Alongside these semi-devotional expressions of her good works, the speech is very careful to counter this with the language of normalcy, of the ordinary that her son deployed 20 years later. Her widely documented struggles with self-esteem, eating disorders, her relationship with Prince Charles and the rest of the royal family are presented like this, ‘You know, how difficult things were for her, from time to time, I’m sure we can only guess at’. The soap opera character who dominated the media for years previously, one of the most famous global profiles, often being represented as a manipulative attention seeking diva, is normalised into someone like us, someone with difficulties from ‘time to time’. She is like us, indeed she is one of us. And using Burchill’s phrase, we are presented with the paradoxical, even oxymoronic epithet, ‘the people’s princess’ but already, and so subtly so beautifully crafted, what Blair says is, ‘she was the people’s princess’: the past tense is not only accurate, it is the petrol that stokes the blistering fire of nostalgia that fuels the eruption of a grief that the speech has universalised, normalised and quietly insisted upon. It is a magnificent moment of media manipulation and served Blair well, placing him at the centre of a public mood he seemed to describe but had actually helped to create. He too, Prime Minister, brother of a knighted High Court Judge, husband of a barrister, is normalised – his ordinary grief makes him one of the people.

The Queen by contrast was not. With very few exceptions, the press was very critical of the Royals. The fact that the family did not return immediately from its Scottish estate in Balmoral was especially derided with the plea from the usually pro-royalist Daily Express being ‘Show us you care’ (September 4th), and the more left leaning Daily Mirror asserting a victory for people-power as centuries of protocol was flouted after public outrage, and the royal standard was flown at half-mast: the Mirror said, ‘You spoke; they listened’ (September 5th). 

Whether left or right with, broadsheet or tabloid, the mainstream press was united in its presentation of a whole nation united in anger at the Royals and in grief at Diana’s death. Suzanne Moore in The Independent proffered a left-wing majority-mourning rationale that was essentially part of Blair’s establishing of a single country unified in humanity: ‘What has been striking about the so-called "ordinary" members of the public who have displayed their overwhelming sense of loss is that so many of them are those who otherwise feel under-represented in society. Those who loved Diana truly were that prized political entity, a rainbow coalition of diverse groups - old and young, black and white, gay and straight’. This version of a new England, wherein the dispossessed and the alienated could find a common object of redemption was mirrored by the more traditionally-invoked white middle classes who also mourned, and took ownership of the idea of, the people’s princess.

Even at the time, there were some dissenting voices in the media. Individual commentators on both the left and right wondered about the truth of the reporting and bemoaned the failure to report on those who felt differently. Private Eye printed one of its most controversial issues ever with a front page that showed a picture of the crowds outside Buckingham Palace under the caption ‘media to blame’. Three speech bubbles provided a scathing counter-narrative to the prevailing mood of collective loved-up tolerance and grief-induced social compassion. One bubble reads, ‘The papers are a disgrace’, the next says ‘yes. I couldn’t get one anywhere’ and the final one reads, ‘Borrow mine, it’s got a picture of the car’.

Rather than the images of the thousands of mourners (assumed to be synechdochic of the country as a whole) asserting a quietly respectful nation in mourning which the media simply reported on, the relationship between the grief pornography being distributed by the press, and its ravenous consumption by an anguish-addicted populace is the story. Neither of course is wholly true and in a fabulous piece of research by James Thomas using the much-overlooked Mass ObservationArchives, we see a wonderfully varied, complex, contradictory range of responses that refute any easy, binary response to the events or their reporting.

And the complexity of that week must surely be respected in any claims about its continuing influence 20 years on. At its ten year anniversary, columnist, Jonathan Freedland reflected on what had changed in the decade since. He begins with a revisionist account of the week from the broadly left-leaning Guardian reader. Lamenting the mawkishness of the prevailing sentimentality of the week, and the more worrying sense of a ‘fascism of grief’ that turned the country into a one-party state for brief whole with dissenting voices ostracised, at best, and reprimanded with violence at worst, he nevertheless asserts that with some historical distance this can be re-narrated. He wonders whether rather than it being a weird aberration, a lapse into collective hysteria (I use the term purposefully, with its misogyno-sexist heart beating hard), the expressions of grief, public, communal, shared and unashamed mightn’t have posed this question:  ‘Or did something happen that week that deserves to be remembered another way - as a glimpse of the country Britain was becoming and something else too: a rare, collective moment of tenderness?’ Freedland asserts that those who at the time felt isolated and persecuted for not grieving, not sharing in the mutual mournication were in fact then, and are now (even those from a putative left) ossified remnants of a time before; a reeking relic of an imagined nation of folk who carried on resolutely, upper lip stiff, mind focused on the greater good. Those days, that sense of Britishness is no more, argues Freedland, and Diana in part, and her death, in part, and the grieving it elicited, in part, are important stepping stones on that journey.

As he points out, the aloof, reserved royals almost immediately re-oriented themselves to the nation. The ‘ordinary’ Princess Diana with her humanity and compassion, her ‘common touch’ was the template now and Prince Charles posed with the Spice Girls and the Queen visited MacDonald’s. Twenty years on, the Queen is more popular than ever. Her rehabilitation had been achieved within months and it is striking that 20 years on, in the face of different kind of national tragedy the role of politician and monarch were entirely reversed. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster in which scores of people died as the tower was engulfed in a fire that was deemed to have been impossible, it was the Queen who visited the site, met with grieving families, showed herself to be the people’s monarch while the Prime Minister Theresa May was cold, aloof, seemingly remote and cut off from the plight or ordinary people.

Grenfell Tower perhaps exemplifies the complexity of the Diana week, two decades earlier. Freedland in his piece from 2007 quotes an article written by Andrew Marr. It says, ‘with Diana's death, Britain suddenly stared at itself in the mirror and didn't quite recognise the face looking back. No longer was the expression tight-lipped, white and drawn with reticence. Diana was the Queen of another country, a multicultural, liberal and emotionally open Britain.’ This echoes Suzanne Moore in the immediate aftermath of her death and her invocation of ‘that prized political entity, a rainbow coalition of diverse groups - old and young, black and white, gay and straight’. 20 years later, in the social housing tower block in the heart of one of the richest few square miles in Britain it was this same group of the disposed, alienated and socially vulnerable who perished.

Blair’s speech had continued his creation of the centrist consensus (see chapter one), a national re-imaging of a unified, inclusive and included nation, open, emotionally literate, humane where extreme views from left or right were both passé and unnecessary. Internationally it was the world of trade agreements, military coalitions against an ever-more demonised global threat (Islamic jihadism) and a liberal, democratic, progressive west and a variety of other axes of evil. Blair’s speech (in conjunction with social and economic policies, international agreements, a rhetorically re-branded and seemingly expansive Cool Britannia) took Diana’s death and used it to announce this new imagined community. By de-nuding her work of its expressly political aspect (landmines being one version of this); by branding her as exceptional through grace, but ordinary through being; by insisting on a total uniformity of response that occluded all class, ethnic, sexual, racial, physical, educational, wealth or other differences while invoking the name of difference the centrist discourse was provided with a pivotal, axiomatic emotional centre.

When Prince Harry goes shopping at the butchers, the Queen chats with pop stars, Prince William marries a commoner, the Diana effect is in full throttle – the populist monarchy, the people’s prince / princess / overlord. But it is when the nation votes for Brexit as a response to years of the ‘rainbow coalition’ being ignored; and when the magnates, oligarchs, industrialists and sheiks influencing their supporters and backers in the press in order to side-step red-tape and regulation push the Leave agenda; and when remainers are divided between finding the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal a great opportunity for increased prosperity and happiness on the one hand or a neo-liberal plot to overthrow public services on the other – then we see the political consequences of the centrist consensus.

Diana’s death was a personal trauma for two young boys who grew up to become princes and maybe one day king. It was also a catalyst for monarchical re-consideration and re-definition. With Blair’s speech, it was also the dynamo that drove the feel-good possibilities of Blair’s Britain and the political amnesia it produced.


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