Riots and Wastelands: How Princess Diana Helped Bring Britain Out of Crisis and Make It a Modern Society

Diana with the people
Diana, Princess of Wales in Victoria Square, Birmingham April 6, 1993. Diana died on August 31, 1997. The 20th anniversary of her death is approaching. Bob Collier/Reuters

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "Diana's Britain" on September 15, 1997. To commemorate 20 years at the end of this month since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Newsweek is republishing the story.

SOMETHING EXTRAORDINARY HAPPENED IN, AND TO, Britain last week; that much all the world knows. Silently weeping, millions lined the streets of London, breaking into spontaneous applause when the power of the people forced a reluctant queen to fly a flag at half-staff over Buckingham Palace -- and again when a gay rock star sang in Westminster Abbey. Conceivably, such moments will have few lasting consequences for the monarchy, or for British society in general. Yet that seems unlikely. In the flowers and the tears, a new Britain -- one that has been quietly building in strength for a decade and a half -- emerged into the view of a world whose old conception of the country is now hopelessly out of date. The new Britons grieved for Diana, says Trevor Phillips, a black British television executive, as "a heroine. . . She embraced the modern, multicultural, multiethnic Britain without reservation." Diana may be gone, but Britain's self image is changed for good.

The sudden shock of Diana's death demanded an immediate sense of heartfelt loss. But by the time Prime Minister Tony Blair, close to tears, caught the nation's mood and dubbed Diana "the people's princess," it was plain that something beyond normal sadness was in the air. Britons themselves were entirely unprepared for the scale of public and private grief they felt up to, during and indeed after Saturday's funeral. "One phrase you hear over and over again," says Nick Partridge, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, Britain's leading advocacy organization on HIV/AIDS, "is 'I never thought it would upset me so much'."

But why were Britons so moved by Diana's death? To find part of the answer, recall what Britain was like in the summer of 1981, when she married Prince Charles. The country was in crisis. Race riots flared in the cities. Whole areas of the industrial Midlands and north had been reduced to rusty wastelands. Margaret Thatcher, two years into office, was beyond unpopular -- she was hated. Into this unrelieved gloom the royal wedding injected a welcome splash of color and glamour; for that reason alone, Diana always carried a fund of good will with her. Yet at the time, few appreciated the central significance of the new princess; she was young and unformed, with enormous potential for growth. Grow she did, becoming more beautiful, strong and outspoken. And Britain itself, as it got progressively richer and more self-confident in the 16 years up to her death, grew and changed with her.

There is an old British saying that the monarchy is a "mirror to our better selves." In the 1980s, as the royal family lurched from archaic ritual to modern dysfunctionality, that claim seemed a mocking joke. But by the time of her death, Diana had made the aphorism come true; she had become the embodiment of how new Britons wanted their country to be. If you were British, she seemed to signify, you didn't need to smell of wet dogs and warm beer; you could wear Versace and drink champagne. You didn't have to keep your emotions buttoned under the obligatory stiff upper lip; you could talk about them openly. You didn't have to be ironic; you could be passionately committed to causes. You could even -- a really subversive thought -- be British and a sex symbol.

Perhaps above all, you could be British and black, Asian or gay -- and Diana wouldn't even notice. She campaigned against land mines in Angola, touched lepers in Nepal. Unlike most Europeans, says Phillips, she had "no flinch, no anxiety about race . . . for non-white Britons, she was like a beacon in the darkness." She died with a Muslim boyfriend; don't think that meant nothing in a nation where 700,000 people attend mosques each week (not many fewer than the 1 million who worship at the Church of England). For 10 years she was deeply committed to her work for AIDS patients and had an ease with the gay men she met. "It went unremarked," says Partridge. "But among gay men, it did not go unnoticed."

It is axiomatic that she was the only royal who could connect with those Britons who had once been marginalized. Stuck in their Scottish fastness, mesmerized by the need to do things the way they had always been done (if it's Scotland, wear a kilt . . .), the royals spent most of the week after her death giving an impression of heartless irrelevance. Spare a thought for them -- and not just because nobody can know how they handled their undoubted private grief. When the royal family enfolded Diana, they thought they had got a rather dim girl from the landowning Norfolk aristocracy -- not exactly the stuff of revolution. They could not have known that she would be transformed into an international superstar who would make their lives hell. Nor, sadly, can they take the advice of a hundred pundits and learn the "lessons" of Diana. To act Diana, you had to be Diana; it is fatuous to imagine that any present member of the royal family can ever be any more than a pale shadow of her.

This does not mean that Britain will soon -- or ever -- become a republic, though the House of Windsor's place in British society may well be diminished. But it does mean that some old assumptions about Britain will have to be jettisoned. It is not a deferential society, but one where authority has to earn its respect. It is not a homogeneous nation, but a vibrantly messed-up, mongrel one. Its image can no longer be defined by cricket on the green and honey for tea, but more by those who go clubbing in Soho or by Arabs strolling in Kensington Gardens. (Importantly, Diana was never really a country girl, but a London one, with London's glitzy, rebellious values.) Above all, as Blair hammers in public and private, Britain has become a modern society, not a traditional one. The prime minister's own emotions were close to the surface all week, right down to the intensity with which he read the lesson in the abbey. Blair has told advisers that he does not want the cause of modernity to die with Diana. He needn't worry. Diana's Britain went to the florists and found not just wreaths, but a voice. It can't now be silenced.