New Statesman & Society leader, 24 November 1995
If Princess Diana’s interview has damaged the monarchy, that can be no bad thing. The lot of them are an affront to democracy
For the benefit of anyone who has been in a coma for the past few days: Princess Di did commit adultery with James Hewitt, doesn’t think she’s going to be Queen and has a capacity for pitying herself in public unmatched outside Hollywood.
Those are the highlights from Monday’s much-hyped Panorama interview with the Princess of Wales, viewed by some 20 million people worldwide. There’s little point in adding to the mountains of vacuous commentary on the supposed constitutional implications of Diana’s bizarre broadcast: there are none, or at least none directly. If she and Prince Charles don’t divorce, she’ll still be Queen even if she has affairs with the entire England rugby team; and her children will be next in line for the throne, whatever happens to the royal marriage.
What we saw was, nevertheless, a fascinating spectacle – a poor little rich girl whingeing about how she has been hard done-by. Diana’s claim that she accepted half the blame but no more for the break-up of her marriage was just one ploy in many to gain sympathy: in reality, she sees herself as the perpetual victim. Nothing is her fault. She has been hounded by the media, betrayed by Charles, plotted against by his office. Yet she doesn’t want to get out of the public gaze: she thinks that she deserves a role – presumably paid for by the taxpayer – swanning around the world and hanging around hos¬pices for the terminally ill and consoling “drug addicts, alcoholics, battered this, battered that”. And she won’t take the initiative in getting divorced. Even her extra-marital affairs seem to have just happened to her.
Yes, Diana is an icon, but not because she is a strong, independent-minded woman as she claims to be: rather, she epitomises the narcissism and refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions that is endemic in western consumer societies.
Not that the rest of the royals deserve any personal sympathy either. From what has emerged in the past few years, the Windsors appear to be some of the most spiteful and insensitive human beings imaginable.
Despite the claims of Charles’ allies to the contrary, the farce that has surrounded the breakdown of his marriage has been down to him as much as to Diana. If she was responsible for Andrew Morton’s book of her life, it was he who first admitted to adultery, with Camilla Parker-Bowles, in a television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby – a revelation that showed him to be a pious hypocrite. The other younger adults in the family (except Princess Anne) appear to be at best buffoons. If the Queen died tomorrow, it would be difficult to find a credible monarch to replace her. If Princes William and Harry turn out like their relatives, things will get even worse.
Which is where constitutional questions do come in, albeit tangentially. For what Diana said to Panorama has undoubtedly added to the damage done to the popular standing of the monarchy in recent years. And, although in theory the popularity of the monarchy is not a constitutional question, in practice it becomes so as it declines.
Put bluntly, if the reputation of the British royals continues to slump, it will not be long before Britain as a polity will have to confront the question of whether or not it needs or wants a monarchy. So far, the monarchy has been able to cope with growing public disillusionment by way of minor reforms of its privileges: the Queen’s agreement to pay tax, or her decision to open Buckingham Palace to the public.
Further moves in the same direction, such as a radical reduction in spending on the civil list, are the least we can expect in the next few years. For their own survival, it might be enough for the Windsors to turn themselves into a Scandinavian-style monarchy, all bicycles, proper jobs and modest houses. But there comes a point at which this is not enough – when the issue becomes not the royal family’s dissoluteness or its cost to the taxpayer, but whether the hereditary principle has any role at all to play in the government and politics of a democracy.
That point could be closer than most commentators think.
If Labour wins the next election, the politics of the hereditary principle will move centre-stage as soon as Labour publishes its plans to abolish hereditary peerages. So too will the position of the royal prerogative when Labour’s bill of rights emerges. Of course, Labour has no intention of putting reform of the monarchy – let alone its abolition – anywhere near the political agenda, but it increasingly looks as if, in the long run, it won’t have any option but to do so. As far as NSS is concerned, that is no bad thing. The day that we are rid of the anti-democratic absurdity of monarchy cannot come soon enough. And if Diana’s performance this week helps bring on that day, it will have done endless good – however unpleasant the personality she revealed.