How Princess Diana Sowed the Seeds of the Royal Family's Destruction

Princess Diana
A man holds up placards in memory of the late Princess Diana at the gates of her former residence, Kensington Palace, in London, August 30. Hannah McKay/rEUTERS

There's a lot of nonsense talked about the Royal Family, not least when it comes to public attitudes toward them.

Away from the headlines and the headline polling figures, the vast majority of people in Britain view the monarchy with a benign indifference. Most people are happy to accept the status quo and to assume claims about the benefits the institution brings are true, but that doesn't add up to the excitable support suggested by the press.

The 20th anniversary of Diana's death is another reminder about the huge disconnect between the public discussions and the attitudes of ordinary people.

Stop and ask people in the street and you'll again find a general sense of indifference and disinterest, particularly as so many of us would struggle to remember much about Diana's life, let alone care.

As for her death, it is a personal tragedy but not an event of huge national significance. Yes, Prince William and Harry have added some new lines to the story, taking every opportunity to tell the press about how they feel 20 years on. But even in royal circles there's a sense that they may be overdoing the public outpouring of personal feelings.

Too often the commentary around the future of the monarchy becomes bogged down in polling and the popularity of individual royals. The British monarchy, the central pillar of our constitution, has been reduced to the status of the Kardashians: Which one do you like best? What's the latest gossip?

This is a dangerous position to be in, because celebrity is a fickle phenomenon that can build you up one day and tear you down the next. Meanwhile, the monarchy is under threat from other directions, not least its own corruption and greed.

The assumption is that polling that tells us 75 percent of the public want to keep the royals reflects widespread love and affection. Yet the popularity of the monarchy is wafer thin—it is high but shallow. The key factor in its survival has been the queen, there longer than most of us can remember and effective in defending the monarchy through silence and old-world deference. Her children and grandchildren do not and cannot command the same levels of support.

When the queen dies, the British public will be faced with the first change of head of state most of us can remember—and in the age of Twitter how many will ask one simple question: Why don't we have a say?

It is likely that Diana's one legacy is to shape the family of princes—the father and two sons—in the public imagination in such a way as to raise questions about the institution itself. Do we really want this man Charles as our king? Does William want to be monarch, or would he and his brother be happier walking away from the whole show, as Harry suggested in a recent interview? Can we skip a generation?

The simple answer to that last question is no. The monarchy doesn't work like that. If Charles is alive when his mother dies, he is king. With recent polling showing Charles as the least favorite option after his sons, the system of monarchy is on course for a head-on collision with public sentiment and a more stubborn democratic will.

Diana may have changed public attitudes to the royals, but the monarchy itself remains largely unchanged.

It is still excessively secretive—described by experts as more secretive than the CIA or Britain's MI5. The royal household routinely spends public money on their own travel, palatial homes and private security while helping themselves to revenue from state lands owned by the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster.

This rigid, secretive and corrupt institution is a poor fit for the more febrile and less deferential mood of the British public.

Moreover, the British constitution is in crisis. There is barely a part of it that works well for the people or which isn't being challenged.

For three elections in a row, we've either had or nearly had hung Parliaments, raising questions about the legitimacy of the electoral system and the governments it has produced. In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum last year, we had both the ruling Conservative party and the Labour opposition plunged into internal strife and leadership challenges. The country was leaderless at a most dangerous hour.

Since then we've witnessed our prime minister override Parliament and pursue a single-minded approach to Brexit that has allowed little room for opposing voices. Whatever your view on Britain's exit from the EU, it can't be right that the PM has so much power to dictate the direction of such as major political exercise.

And here's the thing: the Monarchy isn't just a soap opera, it is the foundation of the British constitution, and it provides us with a head of state. Yet the monarch's powers are handed to the prime minister, making the PM far more powerful on domestic issues that almost any other Western leader, and the monarch herself is absent from the job. Unable and unwilling to perform any meaningful role, the queen is of no use during these turbulent times.

Whatever Diana may have done to change sentiments toward the family, the institution is unlikely to withstand the challenges coming its way: an interventionist king unpopular with the public; an unwilling heir; deep unease about the way Britain is governed and a more active republican push to expose and challenge royal abuse of power and privilege. The show is doing well in the polls, but this current episode is likely to be the high point before a long and steep decline.

Graham Smith is chief executive officer of Republic, which campaigns for a democratic alternative to the monarchy.