Diana’s death changed nothing



    It is 10 years since New Labour’s landslide victory was followed by Princess Diana’s death. The two events have always been connected, as a result of the ‘People’s Princess’ speech, in which Tony Blair demonstrated his talent for amateur dramatics for the first time – and his skill at political manipulation.For a few strange and still largely incomprehensible days, large sections of the population gave themselves over to a collective outpouring of emotion that might have appeared in Charles Mackay’s nineteenth century classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions And The Madness of Crowds.For those few days it was impossible to escape the mountains of flowers, the media-orchestrated ‘grief’ and Elton John’s mawkish dirge. Even normally intelligent commentators lost their bearings in this rarefied atmosphere. Some spoke of a republican ‘floral revolution’ against the monarchy. Others celebrated the fact that a population known for its reserve had discovered its feminine side and learned to cry. There was talk of a kinder, softer England, symbolised by Diana’s pieta-like smile and also by Blair himself.Much of this was arrant nonsense. Even then there was an alarming conformity about the response to Princess Diana’s death that made one think that much of the population had been taken over by alien seed pods. As the hapless royal family discovered to its cost, such a response not only expected but frequently demanded emulation.Indifference to Diana’s death earned the kind of hostile attention that Meursault received in Albert Camus’ The Outsider for not crying at his mother’s funeral. Even people who had never mentioned, and perhaps had never even thought about, Diana in their lives looked aghast and even angry at any suggestion that she was perhaps not a particularly exemplary or admirable individual – beyond the fact that she was famous and photogenic.To express indifference to the People’s Princess was an admission of cynicism or inhumanity. In these circumstances even the most convinced republican could feel some sympathy for the royals, as they were dragged by the tabloids and the tearful crowds to take part in Diana’s secular canonisation.Was this bizarre melodrama an expression of crowd hysteria, the product of a lonely, atomised society steeped in too many soap operas, whose individual members wanted to experience a single moment of shared emotion? Was Diana the ‘imaginary friend’ whose photogenic smile transported millions back to childhood fantasies? Was it a confirmation of the cult of celebrity and the power of the media?Psychologists and sociologists may ponder such questions for years. But one thing is clear; the long-term historical impact of Diana’s death has been absolutely nothing. So let us not pretend that Diana still matters for the truth is that for the overwhelming majority of us, she doesn’t matter at all, and never really did.But while Diana’s death changed nothing, it did coincide with a shift in British society. Ten years ago Tony Blair came to power promising to make Britain a ‘beacon to the world’. Since then we have become richer, coarser, more selfish and cynical, prone to expressions of sentimental emotion and equally unpredictable outbreaks of brutality.It is a society where the national obsession with fame and celebrity is reflected in an endless array of wannabe TV shows and the glorification of the rich and powerful. Many of these tendencies were embodied by the devious ham actor with the trembling lower lip who ruled the country for the last decade. Now Blair has gone and the beacon that he promised, as Elton John might put it, has turned out to be just a candle in the wind.  FIRST POSTED AUGUST 24, 2007 



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