16. The Death of Diana

August-September 1997


Less than four months into this government came the death of Princess Diana in a car crash with her companion Dodi Fayed in Paris. Although an opinion poll only weeks before had shown support for the royal family below 50% for the first time, there was now an outpouring of public grief and soul-searching at her death. In unprecedented scenes massive crowds came onto the streets of London, in particular, and in other cities too. We posed the question: “Why did an estimated 300,000 people sign the book of condolences for someone they had never met, and who inhabited an entirely different world to theirs?”1

Was it just another case of mass hysteria whipped up by the press? There was undoubtedly an element of this, which provided an opportunity for us to explain and underline the class role of the monarchy today. Walter Bagehot the 19th century political journalist stated that, “The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable.”2 Further: “Our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it, you cannot reverence it. Where there is a select committee on the Queen, the charm of royalty will be gone. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight on magic. We must not bring the Queen into the combat of politics, or she will cease to be reverenced by all combatants; she will become one combatant, among many.”3

The public reaction to the death of Diana and her companion  revealed the complete transformation that had taken place since Bagehot’s times. Deference to the upper circles of society, including the monarchy, had been shattered beyond recall. We pointed out: “In an astonishing week which followed Diana’s death, the fate of the monarchy as an institution, and not just the Windsors, seemed to hang by a thread. Above all reaction to her death revealed the underlying explosive tensions in this society which came to the surface for a time.” Mixed in with public grief was complete hostility to the press and the digital media. People outside Kensington Palace declared to reporters: “You killed her.”4 The appeal of Diana to sections of society who would otherwise be repelled by the monarchy was mainly due to her seeming sympathy for the ‘underdog’: the well-advertised visits to the homeless, accompanied by her sons; a campaign on landmines, condemned by the Tories; and a reaching out to those such as lepers, which endeared her to a broad swathe of the population.

Trained as a nursery nurse, even Diana’s body language in embracing children or the disabled contrasted favourably with the dysfunctional and non-tactile Windsors. This impression was reinforced in the days following her death. As the rest of the royal family remained in their Balmoral fortress, huge crowds queued outside Kensington Palace, in effect taking over the royal parks. As the Observer put it: “Diana met the need in a lonely secular society for solidarity and warmth – and for secular saints… The past 20 years of rising inequality, decaying public institutions, the celebration of private activity and private free markets has created a new society that is more individualistic, more insecure, less anchored… A seemingly vulnerable woman appealed to millions, particularly women, who also feel vulnerable.” Even bourgeois commentators remarked that Diana worship was basically anti-royal, anti-establishment: “Diana would not be thought good if the causes she had espoused were privatisation, workfare and the charity ball.”5

One of the most striking features of these events was the rapid change in consciousness in the week following her death. The day after she died, there was complete hostility in the press and growing criticism and even hatred towards the royal family. We commented:

“This is also a reflection of the ‘feminisation’ of society over the last two decades. More inclined to demonstrate their feelings, women’s attraction to the figure of Diana grew in inverse proportion to the growing hostility to the figure of Prince Charles. This is also an expression of the fact that even bourgeois women in class society face oppression and discrimination, not in the social and economic sense as with the working class, but personally and psychologically.”

There was growing antagonism towards the Windsors and the monarchy as the Queen was contemplating a public funeral for Diana. Jolted by the barbs from the press, the royal entourage departed the Balmoral lair and descended on London. Gaffe-prone Prince Philip asked a member of the crowd outside Kensington Palace: “Have you been waiting long?” The average waiting time was over 11 hours! Blair obligingly stepped in to defend this feudal relic. In the short term he appeared to capture the public mood. This contrasted with the hapless new Tory leader William Hague, who in the days leading up to her death had attacked Diana for her anti-landmines policy. He compounded this problem by attacking Blair over his role in advising the monarchy during the events after her death. Yet polls showed that 83% of the population approved of Blair’s role. These events in Britain were similar to what happened after the Dunblane massacre or the White March in Belgium following the paedophile murders of a number of children.

In the aftermath of Diana’s death the media predictably took a side swipe at the left who allegedly show a lack of feeling “and even inhumanity” at the death of Diana. We pointed out that, on the contrary: “Marxism is the most humane philosophy. It is saturated with the spirit of optimism and faith in human destiny.” Marx approvingly echoed the words of the poet Heinrich Heine: “Nothing which is human is foreign to me.” It is possible to feel sympathy for the death of any human being (especially in horrific circumstances), including one from a privileged background and the personal loss suffered by her family.

At the same time, this does not mean that we close our eyes to the limitations of the role of an individual or the social role which  she, her circle or the monarchy can play. We are opposed to any impediment or institution which prevents working people establishing a clear consciousness of its own power and strength. From a basic democratic point of view, never mind the interests of the working class and socialism, the feudal institutions of the monarchy, along with the House of Lords in all its trappings, should be abolished and put into a museum of antiquities. In the final analysis, the monarchy is a weapon for the ruling class to be used in ‘emergencies’. This was shown in Australia in 1975 with the replacement of the democratically elected Labour government of Gough Whitlam by the Queen’s appointed governor-general.6

The ruling class has not yet been forced to call upon the monarchy to play a similar role in Britain. Its more farsighted representatives can, however, envisage a huge future collision between the classes leading to a revitalised socialist labour movement. This could culminate in an election of a socialist government threatening their power and prestige. As history attests, in this situation, they would not hesitate to use extra-parliamentary methods and mobilise around the monarchy as a symbol of the ‘nation’.

Following the death of Diana there was a concerted attempt to ‘humanise’ Prince Charles. But in 2013 we learnt that the Queen had personally intervened in a number of parliamentary bills, as had Prince Charles. This alone is an infringement of the democratic rights of the British people. The monarchy is supposed to be neutral in politics. It is not. With an intensification of the class struggle inevitable, the ruling class will gather behind all its institutions, including the monarchy, which it will try to use against attempts to move society in a socialist direction. This is why, while carefully analysing the movement that developed around the death of Diana, we never forgot the class criterion of emphasising the role of the monarchy as a weapon in the armoury of the ruling class. This issue will undoubtedly come to the fore again in future battles in Britain.