Flowers for Princess Diana's Funeral. Maxwell Hamilton / Flickr
The 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana has become the occasion for rehearsing the event and the extraordinary reaction to it in television programmes broadcast around the world. Laura Perrins, Co-Editor of the British website The Conservative Woman, asked conservative columnist Peter Hitchens, who is also the author of The Abolition of Britain, where the nation and its monarchy have come since then. We are basically in the same world, he replies; the real transformation came before 1997.
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Laura Perrins: It has been twenty years since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In your book, The Abolition of Britain, you contrast the funerals of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 and the princess in 1997 to illustrate a transformation in British culture and habits. You say:
‘In 1965, the people of Britain may have been poorer, smaller, shabbier, dirtier, colder, narrower, more set in their ways, ignorant of olive oil, polenta and – even – lager. But they knew what united them, they shared a complicated web of beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, loyalties and dislikes. By 1997 they were unsure and at sea. Those over 40 no longer felt they were living in the country where they had grown up, and while they may secretly have held to older views and customs, they publicly accepted the new arrangements with a tolerant smile. Those under 40, for the most part, had only the sketchiest notion of who they were and of how or when their surroundings had come to be as they were, had little common language with either parents or grandparents, and despised much of what the previous generation had admired.’
Twenty years on, this seems pretty prophetic?
Peter Hitchens: Kind of you, but I am not sure about ‘prophetic’. It just seemed quite obvious to me at the time (as did many other things about Britain which are now accepted by conventional wisdom but weren’t then). I’ve no idea why other people find it so difficult to see what is in front of their noses.
L P: In that chapter, you speak about the public reaction to the princess’s death and the turn of sentiment against the Queen.
‘The convenient fiction of a stuffy and obstructive establishment was never more blatantly and falsely employed than during the miserable few days when the Queen and her family were urged to snivel in public over the death of Diana, and Buckingham Palace was forced to fly the wrong flag at half-mast, to placate a supposedly enraged populace. How widely this enraged view was truly held it is now impossible to say . . . It is hard to believe that a real majority of British citizens were thirsting to humiliate their Queen in this fashion, but it appeared to be so on television.’
Twenty years on I believe this manipulation is still happening. I watched one BBC programme which seemed dedicated to the notion that the monarchy was on the edge and only Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell saved it. Is this just straight-up fake news?
P H: We can’t know. Certainly it was a moment of great danger for the monarchy, which it (sort of) survived, though it is now a ‘people’s monarchy’, whose relationship to the public is entirely based on the Queen being the nation’s favourite grandmother, and on the two young princes being Diana’s children. This is a pretty fickle basis on which to base a monarchy. The events of the past few weeks, especially the various interviews given by the young princes, must make Charles wonder if his legitimacy is now dangerously weakened. He is not the nation’s favourite anything, and Diana’s supporters will never warm to him. He is a largely decent, thoughtful man (I say this though I disagree with him on several issues) who until 1997 was well-qualified for the throne. But can he now ever ascend it?
The collapse of Protestant Christianity in Britain, under way for a century, which had accelerated since the 1960s, left people with no language or ritual with which they were familiar. But they continued to hunger (who does not?) for collective responses to great events. My own view is that the British people long ago ceased to be grown-up enough to accept the contract of constitutional monarchy. In this bargain, the sovereign symbolises our own free sovereignty over ourselves, and also symbolises on a grand scale the principal constituent part of our pre-revolutionary free society, the Christian married family. Who wants that now?
Sentiment and inertia prevent much criticism of the current monarch, though this truce will end once the next monarch ascends the throne. Australia’s growing republicanism presents a particular danger which, like the crowd applause at Diana’s funeral spreading into the pews occupied by the establishment, could bring about a copycat reaction in the home country. All the social, cultural and moral movements which coalesced into New Labour are viscerally opposed to monarchy. We now know for certain that Blair himself was a university Trotskyist, as he has told Peter Hennessy so on Radio 4. We know less, but a bit, about the revolutionary Marxist leanings of many of his senior colleagues. But I do think people should grasp that Blair’s one-time close aide Peter Hyman was telling the truth when he confessed last Christmas that New Labour’s project was far more radical than Jeremy Corbyn. Dim people can’t seem to grasp that the absence of Little Red Books or plans to storm the Winter Palace doesn’t mean there’s no revolution going on. This lot captured the BBC, the schools, the civil service and the courts, not the railway station, the barracks and the post office.
Monarchy is Christian, and Gramscian Marxists see Christianity as a rival and foe. Its remaining traces prevent the fulfilment of the egalitarian, borderless utopia they long for. It is patriarchal. Need I say more? It is morally conservative, but weak marriage, or no marriage at all, are essential in a society in which people are subjects of the parental state whose coming was prophesied so terrifyingly by Helen Brook in 1980: ‘From birth till death it is now the privilege of the parental State to take major decisions— objective, unemotional, the State weighs up what is best for the child.’ A conflict between New Labour and the monarchy was inevitable. After all, by driving the hereditaries out of the Lords they had left the monarchy as the only remaining hereditary institution in the country, and made clear their opposition, in principle, to the idea of inherited authority. The monarchy was, and is, next. Labour’s only official public discussion of the subject, back in the 1920s, ended with a decision to put abolition off till later (by implication: when it might be easier). Diana didn’t have a political thought in her head, but paradoxically, she was an instinctive genius at politics. She just knew, as she picked her many public gestures, how to strike at the heart of the institution she believed had used and wronged her.
And equally instinctive republicans, such as Alastair Campbell (another political genius) and his glove-puppet, Blair, could see in Diana a weapon to be used against the monarchy, while still keeping the sentimental, patriotic parts of the population on their side, or at least neutral.
L P: The reaction of those people who did trudge down to Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace to lay their flowers and openly weep over a woman they had never met was extraordinary. Today, Princes William and Harry, although always respectful of the public, do say that their younger selves wondered why these people were weeping over someone they had never met: ‘Diana was my mother.’ Snatching the grief that properly belongs to two children who have lost their mother is an incredibly selfish act. Why do you think so many indulged in it?
P H: See above. They needed it. It had very little to do with the events, except that Britain these days contains a lot of wronged women, or at least women who think they have been wronged, who identified with Diana. So did various other outcasts from the mainstream (‘for his mourners will be outcast men, and outcasts always mourn’). The collapse of formal religion, of its hymns and ceremonies, had left a hole waiting to be filled. Christianity knew it had to satisfy this hunger in some way, hence its festivals, its music, its huge ornate buildings – that ‘vast moth-eaten musical
brocade . . .’ and in some versions, its worship of saints and cults of the Virgin. Films and pictures of Diana had huge emotional power. She was one of those people whom the camera loved (on the one occasion I saw her close to, even though I was looking for her, I did not recognise her. The camera gave her a mysterious, essential beauty which I wish I could explain).
But all Christianity’s ritual power had gone. Here was a substitute. I regard the piling of flowers and the assembly of emotional crowds as a sort of revival of the paganism or polytheism that Christianity had long suppressed (mind you, I take the same view of the football cult, and some aspects of the rock music cult).
L P: The cultural and political differences between 1965 and 1997 were indeed huge. However, arguably the differences between 1997 and 2017 are even greater, and have occurred at a quicker pace. For instance, believing that marriage is between one man and one woman for life and to the exclusion of all others was not seen as a hate crime back in 1997. How do you see the next 20 years shaping up?
P H: I don’t agree. 1997 and 2017 are recognisably the same world, but with more electronic knobs on. We even still have a New Labour government, though it has a different name and doesn’t understand the policies it pursues. By contrast, 1965 and 1997 are two different planets. As for the future, I daren’t say. It depends so much on economic circumstances, which I suspect will grow much worse and divert us from many of our current preoccupations into new, harsher and more basic matters.
L P: Finally, social media has had a massive impact, arguably diluting the power of the mainstream media. Do you think the reaction to Diana’s death and the same media manipulation of the public could occur today, or do you think it would be even worse?
P H: I think it could have happened only once. The events of those days destroyed much of the moral and social architecture of this country, and they have gone for good. As for the future, who knows? Who could have predicted the events after Diana’s death? Whatever happens next will not be the same, though I have no doubt that social media will make these events worse than they otherwise would have been, whatever they are.
Laura Perrins is the Co-Editor of The Conservative Woman, where this article was first published. Republished with permission.