‘Diana taught us a new way to be British’

Flower power: Crowds lay bouquets outside Kensington Palace after Diana’s death. © Getty

Princess, star, activist, mum: Diana Spencer played many roles in life. In death, however, her impact has been even greater. How has Britain changed in the 20 years since she passed away?

In the run-up to the 20th anniversary of her death, Diana Spencer has once again entered the limelight. Newspaper editors have devoted entire supplements to her; new documentaries have been aired around the world; flowers have reappeared outside Kensington Palace, her former home.

And, still, Britain is discussing the ways it has been transformed by the departed princess.

People born after August 31st 1997 may wonder what all the fuss is about. But older generations well remember the sheer impact of her death in a car crash when she was 36, and the days of unprecedented mourning that followed.

They recall the emotional tribute by Tony Blair, then prime minister: “She was the people’s princess.” The queen’s initial silence, which angered even royalists. The funeral procession, the route lined by a million people, watched by 2.5 billion on TV. The tears, the confusion, the sea of bouquets outside the palace.

Britain surprised itself with its reaction. Of course, Diana’s death was shocking: she was both a young mother and the most famous woman in the world. Throughout her unhappy marriage to Prince Charles and subsequent divorce, she had won hearts with her pioneering charity work and frank discussion of her problems (including bulimia and depression).

Even so, the scale of the public grief was unheard of in Britain, a nation traditionally known for its stoical “stiff upper lip” mentality. Many now see her death as a cultural turning point. As Blair later said, “Diana taught us a new way to be British.”

Her influence can be seen in her sons William and Harry, high-profile campaigners for mental health awareness. It is also reflected in more subtle changes in British life. This week, columnists have linked her to modern celebrity culture, the rise of sentiment in politics, the fashion for hugging, and even the tendency to place flowers in public places where a death has occurred.

Diana is not uniquely responsible for all this. Yet since her death, she has remained a powerful icon of emotional openness. What is her legacy?

Princess Charming

Diana has helped change her country for the better, say some. In life, she showed people that emotional repression is unhealthy. In death, she enabled them to vent their feelings like never before. Britain is now a more confident, compassionate place, no longer held back by outdated values.

But openness is not always healthy either, reply others. Since Diana’s death, people have felt entitled to get angry or sad about any old issue, even if it has nothing to do with them. Emotion has taken the place of reason in public life. At worst, that attitude leads to things like the Brexit campaign, where feeling trumped facts.

You Decide

  1. Should this anniversary be such big news?
  2. Should the royal family be abolished?

Activities

  1. Watch both Blair’s and the queen’s reactions to Diana’s death in Become An Expert. As a class, come up with five adjectives to describe each speech. Then discuss: which one is better?
  2. Research Diana’s life, then write her an obituary, ensuring that the style is appropriate for a newspaper.

Some People Say...

“Only do what your heart tells you.”

— Diana Spencer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The British had experienced public mourning before — the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965 is one example. But the reaction to Diana’s death was on another level. Most of the nation watched the funeral on TV, as did an estimated 2.5 billion people around the world. The union jack above Buckingham Palace was lowered to half mast for the first time ever.
What do we not know?
Diana’s impact on British society is hard to separate from other factors. Some argue that the end of the stiff upper lip came in the liberal sixties, or else with the election of Tony Blair in May 1997. Others say that the influence of America, in particular its “therapy culture”, has done far more than the princess to get people to open up. Others yet point to the internet and social media.

Word Watch

Kensington Palace
A palace in central London where several royals have official residences, including Princes William and Harry.
Initial silence
For days after the death, the queen stayed with Diana’s sons at her Balmoral estate, away from the media. Her failure to make an immediate public statement temporarily harmed her popularity.
Charity
More than any royal before her, Diana used her fame to promote charitable causes, notably AIDS treatment and a ban on landmines. She made headlines by shaking hands with an AIDS patient at a time when the disease was highly stigmatised.
Stiff upper lip
Although this expression calls to mind Britain in its imperial heyday, it appears to have originated in America.
Mental health awareness
Harry, William and his wife Kate lead a campaign called Heads Together, which encourages people to speak about mental health issues. See The Day’s article in Become An Expert.
Sentiment
For instance, in the aftermath of the death, the Tory party told its members that they had to embrace “emotional intelligence”. See The Guardian’s article in Become An Expert.

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