The cynics among us might have been tempted to call it a Working Funeral – and indeed, the laying to rest exactly two decades ago of Diana, Princess of Wales did seem to recall Winston Churchill’s old adage of never allowing a good crisis to go to waste. The great and good from the present and the past could be counted among the guests at the service at Westminster Abbey, with current and former prime ministers and assorted politicians and public figures chief among the two thousand or so guests who could get in. The wider public would content themselves with loudspeakers outside the Abbey – or else prime-time viewing on the television.
This was not what the Establishment – as Diana herself had dubbed the wider Royal Family in her famous Panorama interview by Martin Bashir in November 1995 – had originally planned for her. Since her divorce from Prince Charles in 1996 she had technically no longer been a member of the Family, and thus was no longer eligible for a state funeral – but her shocking death in a car crash in Paris on 31 August 1997, and the immense outpouring of public grief in the wake of the event, changed all that. Normally, the Union Jack isn’t flown atop Buckingham Palace unless the monarch is there, but the public reaction to Diana’s death forced a re-think there, with the Queen and Prince Philip curtailing their trip to Balmoral in order to be in the capital among their subjects. Her Majesty herself was forced by the emotional groundswell to make a rare, non-Christmas-related appearance on television, paying tribute to her one-time daughter-in-law. For these and so many other reasons, it was decided to give Diana the kind of send-off that she herself might not ultimately have wanted.
Among the two main stand-out highlights of the service in the Abbey was, of course, Elton John’s re-working of his classic ballad Candle In The Wind – though there are still questions of taste to raise about the wisdom or appropriateness of so re-writing a song originally about Marilyn Monroe. The rewritten song was released as a single the following week, with the proceeds being divided up among various charities that were dear to the Princess. To date over 30 million copies of the single have been sold, making it the second-biggest selling song in popular music history (just behind Bing Crosby’s White Christmas).
The second memorable event proved to be the eulogy, written and delivered by Diana’s brother, Charles, Earl Spencer, in which he had stern words to say about her treatment at the hands of the media:
I don’t think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media, why there appeared to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling. My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum. It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this – a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.
What Earl Spencer and other critics of the press missed, however, was the point that, as much as being pursued by the media, Diana also did a fair amount of pursuing the papers herself: she needed the press in order to get her points across, especially when the Establishment (to coin her term of choice) were equally keen and insistent on getting theirs across, too.
But back to the speech… Earl Spencer also had some pointed things to say about the future for Diana’s sons:
She would want us today to pledge ourselves to protecting her beloved boys William and Harry from a similar fate and I do this here Diana on your behalf. We will not allow them to suffer the anguish that used regularly to drive you to tearful despair. And beyond that, on behalf of your mother and sisters, I pledge that we, your blood family, will do all we can to continue the imaginative way in which you were steering these two exceptional young men so that their souls are not simply immersed by duty and tradition but can sing openly as you planned. We fully respect the heritage into which they have both been born and will always respect and encourage them in their royal role but we, like you, recognise the need for them to experience as many different aspects of life as possible to arm them spiritually and emotionally for the years ahead.
That part of Earl Spencer’s speech was read by some as a swipe at the Royal Family – and some commentators actually went so far as to predict the abolition of the monarchy before too long – but this is to misunderstand the aristocracy. The likelihood of Earl Spencer, or any other member of the landed elite, ever putting their names to an anti-monarchy movement is precisely zero. William and Harry’s uncle merely wanted them to continue with Diana’s style of royalty – ie a less stuffy and more unbuttoned way of selling the monopolization of the job of British head of state by one family. Earl Spencer has, however, since remarked on how he was deceived by royal officials about aspects of the funeral – for example, he was wrongly told that William and Harry had wanted to walk behind the coffin as it was led to the Abbey (they hadn’t).
Twenty years after the funeral that 2 billion watched around the world (one of the biggest TV audiences ever), whatever its apparent shakiness at the time, Britain still has a royal family, with little (if any) public appetite for getting rid of it. Most of the British people, for better or worse, want to hang on to the pageantry and majesty. The Windsors have, after all, been better than most of the world’s royal dynasties at adapting to changing times and trends. The line of succession, apart from anything else, appears secure: whatever misgivings he might have had about his royal duties, in the wake of what happened to his mother, the Duke of Cambridge now seems to have grown into his role as Second In Line – with the recent announcement of his about to become a father for the third time serving to underline the Family’s viability.
Constitutional and succession issues aside, however, perhaps the main reason why Britain is unlikely to turn republican in the near future is that the Windsors make such entertaining copy for their subjects – copy into which even republican-minded media-watchers can sink their teeth. As the late Times columnist Alan Coren put it…
This is why we need a Royal Family – in a week of news-lite, they give us so much fun!