Magazine article The Spectator

How the Death of a Princess Assisted Mr Blair

Magazine article The Spectator

How the Death of a Princess Assisted Mr Blair

Article excerpt

There are signs that the cult is in retreat. Twenty-five thousand people had been expected to process along the Princess of Wales's funeral route last weekend. That itself was a modest proposal, given the scale of last year's emotional haemorrhage, but in the event, only a few hundred turned up; the rest were deterred by rain. Feelings that are so easily dampened must be transient, even if newspaper editors still believe that the late Princess increases sales. They will not be so certain next year.

But it may now be possible to assess the broader significance of the Princess's death, and the public reaction to it. At the time, and although the media concealed the fact, the country was divided, into housemaids and traditionalists. There was a traditional Britain, which may have been saddened by the death of a young mother, but which was also relieved by the removal of a threat to the monarchy. Some of the more robust traditionalists went so far as to conclude that this was the best thing that had happened to the monarchy since Mrs Simpson. But the traditionalists quickly retreated into an appalled silence; appalled not by tragedy but by the behaviour of the rest of their fellow countrymen, who had been transformed into hysterical housemaids in the grip of demented mawkishness.

The housemaids won their greatest victory on the day of the Princess's funeral, when even Lord Lambton felt obliged to cancel his grouse-shooting. But by then Mr Blair had become the conductor of the housemaids' orchestra. The death of the Princess not only rendered irrelevant the actual details of her biography; it also enabled Tony Blair to relaunch his premiership.

Though this has now been forgotten, last August had not been a good month for Mr Blair. While he was on holiday, there had been squabbling between John Prescott and Peter Mandelson; it almost seemed as if the government was not just temporarily leaderless, but directionless as well. Mr Blair may have won his enormous majority; how was he going to use it? The Princess's death taught him how, and confirmed him in a conviction which Peter Mandelson had been trying to implant for several years: that the medium really is the message.

There are two similarities between Mr Blair and the late Princess. He believes, as she believed, in acting before thinking; like her, he possesses a whim of iron. Because she was a princess and not a premier, the consequences of her whims were less destructive. She could only deprive the British army of landmines; he can destroy the House of Lords and break up the United Kingdom. Both of them also knew instinctively how to exploit a charitable cause, Aids in her case, the underclass in his, so as to distract attention from the hopeless sufferers to their gracious benefactors. The sufferings remained unrelieved - but look at the poll ratings.

There is a broader political lesson in this. The Princess derived her potency from being a patron saint: the patron saint of the unhappy. For despite the surface gloss of modern prosperity a large proportion of the population is in a state of near-chronic unhappiness, unfulfilled alike in work, play, sex or friendships. This created an opportunity for the Princess, and a vacuum for her cult. The opportunity came from her palpable unhappiness, which seemed to vindicate her fellow sufferers. She, after all, was one of the most beautiful women who had ever lived, with unlimited access to pleasure and luxuries. If she could not find contentment, how could they be expected to?

The vacuum arises from the decay of organised religion, which does not mean, however, that the religious impulse has diminished. …

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