Princess Diana didn't change Britain.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 3 2007 8:07 PM

The Princess and Her Pea-Sized Legacy

Diana didn't change Britain.

"She was the people's princess. And that's how she will … remain." I marked the 10th anniversary of the death of the princess of Wales by watching Tony Blair's sob-choked 1997 tribute to Lady Diana on YouTube. Like some 89 percent of Britons, I can, of course, remember where I was when the BBC announced her death in a car crash in Paris, where I was when I saw Blair's tribute the first time around, and where I was when Elton John sang "Goodbye England's Rose" at her funeral in Westminster Abbey. Though outside the country for the first two events, I flew back to London (where I then lived) in time for the third and arrived in a country where everyone had apparently gone insane.

Famously, there were mountains of flowers everywhere, not only in front of Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace but in front of the various gyms and restaurants Diana was so often photographed entering and leaving. Something like hysteria reigned in newsrooms too. An editor of my acquaintance told me afterward that she had felt like a parody of an editor in a movie: "I kept shouting, 'Gush! Gush! Gush!' " So weird were the mob emotions, in particular the crowds baying for the queen, that Hollywood inexplicably made an excellent film about the whole affair.

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Yet there was also a good deal of quiet grumbling. "Wasn't it ghastly," someone said to me a few days later: He meant the funeral, not the accident. Someone else calculated that the 1 million people who lined the route of the funeral procession represented at most 2 percent of the population: As many as 98 percent of Britons could thus have been utterly indifferent, and this week a few of them said so. "Diana just another dead glamorous celebrity," read the headline of a Daily Telegraph article that compared the 10th anniversary events to the annual rituals at Graceland and called the late princess the "patron saint" of the "completely self-obsessed."

In fairness, I should note that the grumblers don't deny the tragedy of the princess's death—of course it's sad when a young mother dies suddenly. But they do rightly cast skepticism on the notion, prevalent outside Britain, that Diana's death somehow "changed" the country forever. Though this latter idea is often repeated—among other places on the cover of Time International last week—as time goes on, it looks ever more absurd.

In fact, the genuinely bizarre aspect of the all-consuming Dianamania that gripped Britain a decade ago this week is how slight a trace it has left behind. Actually, the royal family is pretty much the same, only quieter. From Diana, they learned that there is such a thing as too much publicity. Prince Charles and his children are more rarely seen in public; the prince's current consort, Camilla Parker Bowles, is admired for holding her tongue. When the queen mother died in 2002—at age 101, the quintessence of old-style British manners—more people showed up to mourn than had appeared for the funeral of the people's princess.

Nor have there been political repercussions. It didn't take long for Britons to tire of Blair's Diana-like emotionalism (some would say his Diana-like manipulativeness). His sober replacement, Gordon Brown—a man whose name rarely appears in print without the adjective dour—is already more popular. His government is dominated by technocratic types with furrowed eyebrows and sensible centrists like his home secretary, Jacqui Smith. No sign of touchy-feelyness there.

One could argue that Diana's truest legacy is the screaming emotionalism of the British tabloids—except that it long pre-dates Diana, and in fact helped create her in the first place. It is true that if the Sun, the Mail, and the Daily Express all throw their best headline-writers onto a story, it is possible to get Britons to tie yellow ribbons round an old oak tree or hound some pathetic adulterer out of office. But then it always was. This is, after all, the country that created Beatlemania. Howling mobs—Cromwell's army, Luddites, football hooligans—have always been the flip side of the stiff upper lip.

Ironically, nowhere does Dianamania seem more irrelevant than in the place that was meant to be its shrine. Last summer I happened to find myself at the Diana Memorial at Althorp, her family's estate (you can rent it for weddings; two gay friends of mine did so) and had a look around. There were dresses, childhood photographs, condolence books. There was the original, handwritten version of the speech her brother Charles made at her funeral—framed behind glass and lit as if it were the Magna Carta.

Visitor numbers are way down from 1997, and no wonder: The whole thing feels rather irrelevant. Human beings naturally try to give deeper meaning to pointless tragedies—even where no meaning is to be found.

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