Our lady of the tabloids
Twenty years on, Britain is still not over the death of Diana Spencer. Paul Demarty investigates the cult of the ‘people’s princess’
It was 20 years ago today (assuming, eager reader, that you are looking at this on the evening of publication) that Diana Spencer, princess of Wales, met a grisly end in a road tunnel in Paris.
Her death, along with lover, Dodi Fayed, and their intoxicated, hapless driver, Henri Paul, was tragic in the generic sense that all such incidents are. Yet the wider culture of Britain marks the anniversary not for that reason, plainly enough. A BBC radio documentary stretched credulity when it was announced as the story of the “most extraordinary life of the 20th century” - picture Lady Di, towering in influence above Lenin, Freud, Stalin, Hitler and innumerable other singular figures in an eventful period - yet we can almost imagine it an innocent accident on the part of the continuity announcers.
The cult of Diana Spencer has, in 20 short years, persisted stubbornly in the national ideology. In the end, it is no surprise; for what her death accomplished is no less than the fusion of the contemporary form of celebrity culture with the British monarchy - a rather odd thing to be martyred for indeed - but more immortality than most people will enjoy.
It is, of course, true that the royals have always been celebrities of one sort or another, and particularly since the Victorian era, when the grandeur of empire was projected in part through the perceived personal virtues of the crown: in contrast to the savagery of the colonial natives, Victoria was supposed to represent temperance and civilisation; and her austere Protestant virtues were hailed, by English Toryism at least, as an antidote to the popery and radical ferment of the continent (not to mention Ireland). Before that, the sexual incontinence of George IV and the life in sin of his brother, William IV, were the subject of public scandal-mongering, as was the notorious madness of their father, George III. And the pattern continued in the last century - we need only mention Edward and Mrs Simpson.
What all these have in common, however, is a particular fetishism of the monarchy, very typical of constitutional monarchies in general, as a symbolic representation of the antique moral inheritance of the country. In this light, to take one example, the prohibition against Catholics taking the throne - whose origins lie in the close association between the Roman church and monarchical absolutism at the time of the 1688 revolution, but can scarcely have much popularity today - must be maintained anyway; the projection of continuity is essential, even when it is continuity of a ‘revolutionary’ stipulation. We even tolerate - how to put this - the various royal houses’ habit of pushing at the edges of the incest taboo, in service to the idea that the nobility of the national character is somehow present in concentrate form in royal blood (even though they are ‘all German’ ... ). The moral turpitude of George and William is a problem because it pierces the moral veil: the monarchy is revealed to be much like us - hostage to the appetites of the flesh and all that.
Diana, in contrast, succeeded in the public mind because she was ‘just like us’. The question of how she gets to be just like us is hardly an uninteresting one. This is, on the face of it, a peculiar view of things. Not all of us are born into a family with a 200-year-old earldom; plenty of us fail our school exams, but not many do so at an exclusive private school, and fewer yet proceed from there to finishing school in some remote corner of the Alps. It is to our great advantage and benefit, moreover, that we are not typically coerced into marriage with the Prince of Wales. Though the wedding was a major public event, Diana was not yet the Lady Di we know today; merely a strikingly young, saucer-eyed Sloane.
What changed was, of course, the long and messy divorce, imperfectly concealed by the Palace, but whose details leaked out, drip by drip. The marriage seems to have been a sham from the get-go. Charles agreed to it only when he was forbidden from making a queen-in-waiting out of the divorced Camilla Parker-Bowles. Kings needed virgin brides. Diana was sold to him as a brood-mare, and fulfilled her side of the ‘bargain’, producing two male heirs; Charles continued on with the woman who actually interested him (and with stubbornly promoting the eccentric opinions that bored everyone else). It did not take long, under those circumstances, for his wife to find physical satisfaction in the company of other men, one of whom - James Hewitt - turned his charm into the mother of all kiss-and-tell stories. Between Hewitt’s actions and Andrew Morton’s famous biography of the princess, published to wide sensation in 1992, the ‘fairytale marriage’ gave way to the usual, ugly procedure of divorce, which - given the stakes - took over four years.
It is sometimes said, when a footballer is caught doing cocaine or saying something racist, that the ‘back page has made the front page’. With the Diana saga, it was the society column that made the front page; the comings and goings of the aristocracy is a peculiarly English fixture in the middlebrow press, of which we are so rightly ashamed, but the gossip about countesses, baronets and debutantes is usually a world away from the pap-snaps and romantic speculation of tabloid celebrity gossip. The divorce of the century changed that, at least in the case of the royal family.
To be a celebrity in the sights of the British gutter press is a schizophrenic calling. Stars flip violently from heroes to villains, seemingly over the course of weeks. A heartfelt tell-all, in aid of some charity or another, will be given extensive and seemingly respectful coverage, fully vetted and agreed by one’s ‘people’; on the other hand, perceived indiscretions (sex and drugs, especially) bring forth moralistic finger-wagging and sometimes torrents of bile.
Freud described religion as the result of the primal horde’s guilt for overthrowing the alpha-male, and, while his speculations on this point are worthless as anthropology, something similar seems to be at work in the tabloid and middlebrow press’s two-decade run of uninterrupted Dianolatry; this is the very picture of bad conscience. Now that she is reinvented as a secular saint, no paper will say anything bad about Diana, but she was routinely pilloried when she was alive.
Her sins were many. She was criticised for speaking openly about the dismal experience of marriage to Charles, and the malignant character of the royal family in general. She was blamed for the breakdown in the marriage - she was too thick to satisfy that great mind of our time, Charles Windsor; she blew hot and cold; and - what else? - she was mad! When she owned up to a history of severe mental illness, publicity-seeking psychiatrists were found to give us a long-distance diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.
The opposite, of course, was also true. If Diana came off badly, she did no worse than Charles, whose bizarre sex-talk with Parker Bowles was raked over in detail. Her charity work was approvingly covered. And despite the best efforts of the Palace press office, the displays of frailty played in her favour. She was, after all, just like us. Future queens suffer from post-natal depression too, as it turns out. The royals, stuck now with their male descendants in a broken home, despised the woman who had caused so much chaos; but, as her tabloid audience grew, so tabloid readers began to take sides: with her.
The result was the spectacular scenes of mass hysteria that greeted her death, which took even the tabloids by surprise. Rapidly they fell into line; Tony Blair delivered his famous ‘people’s princess’ spiel; Elton John hit number one with a hastily rewritten ‘Candle in the wind’. We cannot merely put this down to ‘bread-and-circuses’-type rote patriotism: Diana was too despised by her own class for that. A genuine spontaneous element arose here, reminiscent of the irrational fondness of peasant rebellions in feudal monarchies for this or that pretender to the throne, who would sweep away the vicious lords and do right by the common folk. Conspiracy theories proliferated - why, even the Weekly Worker’s own correspondent, Jack Conrad, told readers that “when I heard the news of her death, I frankly admit my initial suspicion was that MI5 - or some other shadowy arm of the state - had bumped [her] off”, though he concluded that such an arrangement was “highly improbable”.1
How they live now
Such speculations are still rife, and still promoted by the more desperate sections of the gutter press. What lies behind them is, after a fashion, the same stuff that lies behind the conspiracy theories surrounding John F Kennedy.
In that case, there is a need, on the part of many millions of Americans, especially among those old enough to remember the event first-hand, to believe that America had faced a fork in the road, and might have taken the path that led it away from its catastrophic war in Vietnam, and obviated the need for a Nixon in reaction to the crippling of American liberalism in the jungles of Indochina, but was prevented from doing so by certain men in black hats, who diverted the course of national history to blood, lies and corruption. In the case of Diana, we are likewise dealing with wishful thinking, the wish for what is, in relative terms, a random and bloody demise to resolve itself into a neat picture, with good on one side and evil on the other.
The truth is that the events of 20 years ago do not show the establishment acting in ruthlessly efficient concert, but rather in a state of disarray and desperately leaking authority. The result, ultimately, was a reconfiguration of the royal family’s public image. The queen remained more or less as she was, albeit more so - more taciturn, more the humble vessel of the glamour of state power, more dedicated to the letter of her ritual duties. She exists as a sort of self-parodic Victoria, whose reign she has just exceeded, in her puritanical dedication to the narrowest possible interpretation of her role. Charles continues to ride his hobby-horses and generally make a tit out of himself; we suspect that he is not inclined to listen to even the most sensible advice from Palace PR people.
It is the grandsons who are the most telling, for - as we on the left like to say - the youth are the future. They have been more or less donated to the tabloid press which so hounded their mother. Their every interview is trimmed and scripted to perfection - we are reminded, alas, of the post-match interviews of well-trained footballers. The same seven or eight banalities tumble forth. We have been treated of late to no end of confessions that they were - heaven forefend - rather put out by the sudden death of their mother. Nothing about them will ever surprise us.
The point is that, whereas Diana was able to play the tabloid celebrity game, however perilously, as a way of gaining a power base against the family in which she had become trapped, today that same family has essentially sold her children to be the willing servants of the same media apparatus. Its sordid behaviour with respect to Diana, and more or less every celebrity significant enough to merit tabloid notice, seems not to bother the royals, who are happy to cling on to whatever dignity is afforded them in these cynical times. On this front, the media won and, while its power - or rather its appearance of very great power - has been badly shaken these past few years, there is still life in the old dog yet.
Lurking in the background here is a larger historical pattern, whereby hegemonic capitalist powers, when they are supplanted, are forced first onto the ground of total subservience to finance capital, and from thence - when even the bankers have tired of fading glory - to the tedious afterlife of tourism. This process is most clearly visible, unsurprisingly, where it is most complete. Take Venice, once a dominant trading power, then a money laundry, and now - and for the last 200 years or more - a sinking pile of trinkets for the amusement of city breakers. There, we predict, stands London, a decade or two hence. Or perhaps less: the possibility of a catastrophic outcome from Brexit negotiations is equally the possibility of a very sharp ‘leg down’ in this process.
Dead she may be, but Britain will be in ever greater need of photogenic martyrs like Diana, and we predict a long afterlife for her.
1. ‘Death of a troublesome princess’ Weekly Worker September 4 1997.