As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the death of Princess Diana the media is in overdrive. At a time of rapidly diminishing circulation there is a nostalgic element to the coverage, revisiting their halcyon days of many million selling daily papers, when the Princess was a guaranteed sales boost, the star of the unrivalled national soap opera. Underlying much of this anniversary writing is an attempt to grapple with the question of what changed after those seven turbulent days from the crash in Paris to the funeral at Westminster Abbey. In putting Diana’s death into historical context the consensus seems to be the country was never quite the same again.
The summer of 1997 was an optimistic time in Britain, we were no longer the sick man of Europe economically, and had been enjoying a long boom since the early 90s recession. We had just elected a fresh faced Tony Blair on a vague, but positive platform of modernising the country, social progress to match the economic progress under the Conservatives. That mood was abruptly shattered in the dying days of summer with the awful events in Paris.
Like many children in primary school in 1997, the death of the Princess is the earliest major news event to remain imprinted in my memory. I still remember turning on the television and breaking the news to disbelieving family in the early morning. Disbelief was a common emotion throughout that week. As a child I found it difficult to comprehend the weeping strangers on the television that first day, and then a week later the eerie discombobulating hysteria on the streets of the capital during the funeral procession playing out on our television screen at home. Television was also central to that week, in an age before tablets, smartphones and even freeview most people only had four (or was it five by then?) channels. I can vaguely recollect the growing crescendo on the evening bulletins expressing a desire for the Royal family to emote in public. The monarchy, not for the first time in its history, was forced to bend to ‘public demand’. One family we knew, on holiday for the first few days after the death, came back to Britain and thought they had landed in Mars. For at least the week between the crash in that Paris tunnel and the final burial on at Althorp the entire country seemed to exist in a suspended alternate reality, with no one quite sure what would happen next. That, at least, is how people remember it now. Many were wise after the event, describing the reaction as overblown, but at the time such voices were barely raised above a whisper, or drowned out by the choir of grief.
Arguably the lasting impact, if there is any, of dramatic national news events lies in the narrative perceptions that emerge around them in the aftermath. Multiple claims have subsequently been made for changes brought about by the death of the Princess – to the media, the Royal family, to the British stiff upper lip.
The idea the media was changed by public anger at the tabloid hounding of Princess Diana was thoroughly debunked by the phone hacking scandal fifteen years later. The intrusion of newspapers into the lives of the famous had in fact only increased as technology developed. Britain has always had a boisterous, outrageous, free press. As any reader of eighteenth century satire will know the modern press is no worse than its forebears. At times it oversteps the mark and the public react, but as the explosion of social media and behaviour on those platforms has demonstrated, the press is but a mirror of wider society, with all its cracks and imperfections.
Did those seven days change the Royal family and its relationship with the British public? That is an enduring popular lesson of that week. Yet, just as during the abdication crisis of 1936, public dissatisfaction with the monarchy proved fleeting. The idea that the Queen suddenly modernised the monarchy in response to public anger tends to conveniently ignore all the prior changes in her first four decades on the throne. The monarchy has continued to evolve in the 21st century. Now, many look back with shame on the attempts to force a grieving family into a show parade, a quasi-show trial even. In the end those seven days were a crisis weathered in the long history of the House of Windsor. The monarchy today is as popular, if not more popular, than it has ever been in recorded polling history.
Where the strongest case for change can be made is that the death of Diana marked a watershed in the public fora of the U.K., whether it was the trigger or a symptom of wider societal changes, the chicken or the egg, is almost moot. Before her death the Blairs had already introduced a more personal, even emotional, tone into British politics. The age of reality television and then social media was soon to be upon the country and the world. The death of Princess Diana saw unprecedented scenes of public mourning in the UK from an entire generation who had followed her from fairytale bride to tragic early death, a sixteen year arc no writer of fiction could ever possibly have dreamt up. The combination of a Princess intoxicating and intoxicated by the media and public will probably not be seen again, nor is a private family tragedy likely to collide with public spectacle in quite such a way again.
Two decades after her tragic and untimely death, amidst a new wave of memorialisations, the Princess is still raising questions about British society, the media, and the Royal family, even as some of the lessons of those seven days remain palpably unlearnt.