Tony Blair had been prime minister for just four months, when he was thrown into the glare of the world’s media, following the death of Princess Diana. With they eyes of the world turning towards Britain, the nation underwent an unprecedented period of public grief. But as the public turned on the Windsors, Tony Blair was left standing as their sole champion.
Part One: Queen Of Hearts
The sudden death of Princess Diana, in the early hours of August 31st 1997 triggered an outburst of emotion without precedent in Britain’s history. By the end of the week, the public had spent £50 million on floral tributes and would queue for 12 hours to sign her condolence book. Just four months previously, London had been awash with colour, energy and excitement at the scene of Labour’s landslide electoral triumph. But beneath the confidence of the New Labour operation, Blair suffered the same insecurity that most prime ministers feel when taking office – that he might not up to the job. The death of Diana would be his first test on the global stage.
At 2 am, Blair was awoken by a police officer standing at the end of his bed, who told him that Diana had been badly injured in Paris, and there was little chance of survival. The government was confronted with a situation that no one had ever contemplated. Had Diana still had her title, there would have been a precedent and a protocol upon which everybody could draw from. In his memoirs, Blair wrote that he immediately sensed that it: “would be a global event like no other. How Britain emerged was going to be important internally and externally.” His press secretary Alistair Campbell reportedly told him “this is going to create real public grief on a scale that is hard to imagine.”
Campbell, Diana and Blair had formed a bond during Blair’s formative years in opposition. According to Campbell’s memoirs, Diana had flirted with him at a meeting in May 1995, when Blair and Diana discussed ways in which she could work with a future Labour government. After the meeting, Blair had told his team that Diana was “extraordinarily political, not in a party sense, but her awareness and her ability to communicate without always being totally clear.” Diana forgave Campbell’s previous life as a journalist where he had referred to her as “the reasonably pretty, not very bright, very manipulative separated wife of our adulterous future king.”
In January 1997 with Blair on the cusp of taking Labour back into government, he had another meeting with Diana, in a small terraced house in Hackney, hosted by a mutual friend. According to Campbell, Blair “couldn’t work out whether to flirt with her or treat her like a visiting dignitary.” The queen of the photograph had some advice for the popular Labour leader; “You have to touch people in pictures, they can take a lot from you, but they can never take away the pictures.” Blair responded by telling her that the Labour campaign would be about compassion, and they had a lot to learn from her. They parted on good terms and Diana said she would help in any way possible. But in a sign of things to come, Blair acted cautiously. Conscious of taking sides in the ongoing battle with Prince Charles, he knew that he would need to work with both of them as a future prime minister.
At the meeting, Blair praised Diana for her work in Angola – a trip had caused huge controversy, when she endorsed Labour’s policy of a worldwide ban on landmines. The move caused panic within the Tory ranks, as she contradicted the government’s policy. Diana’s visit had attracted worldwide media attention and much public support. Yet the Tories response showed how out of touch they were. The junior defence minister Earl Howe, described the princess as a “loose cannon” and ill-informed on the issue of anti-personnel landmines. Peter Viggers, the man who became infamous in 2009 for claiming for a duck house in the expenses scandal, claimed: “This is an important, sophisticated argument. It doesn’t help simply to point at the amputees and say how terrible it is.” Undaunted, Diana continued to speak out on landmines and arranged a trip to Bosnia to highlight the issue. The next few months would see the press speculate about a foray into a politics, and such was her popularity, she had tremendous power to shape public opinion.
The next time they would meet, Blair would be prime minister, enjoying an unprecedented political honeymoon. Diana remained the tabloid star, but the next few months would become her summer of discontent. In the summer of 1997, the world’s photographers pursued her through Europe, as she whipped the press into a frenzy. She was a goldmine for photographers, typified by the power of an image of her diving off a boat – which was sold for £250,000 to the Sunday Mirror. It was between 1992 and 1997 that Diana’s image as a victim of the royal family was formed. Not only did the media focus on her loveless and sexless marriage, but they linked the failings in the royal set-up to her eating disorder, mental health and suicide attempts.
In July, Blair invited Diana and a young Prince William to Chequers. Yet the two had a minor falling out, after Blair had arranged a meeting with Prince Charles beforehand. Charles had lost the battle for public sympathy in the mid-90s, and his advisors felt that working with a popular new government could enhance his falling reputation. After the election, Charles praised the New Labour campaign and their approach to education. Unbeknownst to Diana, in May 1997, Charles and Camilla had met with Peter Mandelson to create a public relations plan that would prepare the ground for Camilla to be accepted as Diana’s replacement.
Part Two: State Of Shock
When Blair faced the nation on the morning of her death, there is no doubt that he felt the hand of history on his shoulder. He spoke from his constituency to the world:
“I am utterly devastated. The whole of our country, all of us, will be in a state of shock and mourning… I feel like everyone else in this country today – utterly devastated…We are today a nation, in Britain, in a state of shock, in mourning, in grief that is so deeply painful for us…How many times shall we remember her, in how many different ways, with the sick, the dying, with children, with the needy, when, with just a look or a gesture that spoke so much more than words, she would reveal to all of us the depth of her compassion and her humanity. How difficult things were for her from time to time, surely we can only guess at – but the people everywhere, not just here in Britain but everywhere, they kept faith with Princess Diana, they liked her, they loved her, they regarded her as one of the people. She was the people’s princess and that’s how she will stay, how she will remain in our hearts and in our memories forever.
The speech has been derided since as “overblown” and Blair himself has distanced himself from the hyperbole that ensued. Yet there was a sense that this would be his defining moment on the world stage. His ability to articulate the grief would ratifiy the judgment of the voters in choosing him as their new prime minister just months earlier. Nobody listening that morning felt it overblown. It’s notable that after the speech, Martyn Lewis the newsreader – who was tasked with linking comment together – finally broke into tears when he re-read Blair’s words to the nation. Jonathan Freeland wrote in the Guardian that “the people’s princess speech may have done more than 100 commons speeches to establish him in the voters hearts.”
The wording was vitally important. The use of the phrase ‘kept faith’ with Diana was chosen specifically to address the growing media antagonism that had developed over the summer of 1997. Blair claims that he knew that The Daily Mail had been primed to mount a serious campaign against her and they had been sowing the seeds with the Dodi story. Yet the public had kept faith in her and as Blair later recounted in his memoir “The British people knew her faults, and didn’t love her any less for them.”
In that moment, Blair bonded with the British public emotionally, and quickly replaced Diana as the new face of compassionate Britain. He signalled a new approach to public mourning that would have been anathema to previous British prime ministers. The Independent spoke of him as a new Father of the Nation and as a spokesman for the “people”. The day after the speech, The Guardian claimed that his handling of the situation has made him the most dominant British leader in 15 years, with “the people behind him and the crown at his heel.”
Part Three: Show Us You Care
The “People’s Princess” was a loaded term. Whether Blair intended to or not, it set out a clear divide between the “official” Royal Family – as the establishment, and Diana – as the peoples preference. Although there has been much dispute about whether it was Campbell or Blair who chose the phrase, it can be originally traced back to a Julie Burchill article from 1992. Yet there is no doubt, Blair’s use set the tone and within hours the worlds media were referring to her as the ‘People’s Princess’.
The same morning, Prince Charles flew to Paris to bring back Diana’s body. 19 million viewers in the UK watched as the coffin arrived home, before it was taken to the chapel at St James’s Palace. Crowds began to gather outside and the public called for the Queen to return to London from Balmoral to “lead the nation’s grief”. People wanted Buckingham Palace to fly the Queen’s flag at half-mast, which was against protocol as she was not in residence. As crowds began to mount in their thousands outside an empty palace, the public demanded a response. In politics, symbolism is important. A nation uncontrollably grieving for the loss, looked at the Royal Family defensively holed up in Balmoral, and saw everything they hated about the Windsors and had loved about Diana.
For the media, it became the perfect storm. In the first few hours following the death, the media were blamed for their harassment of Diana over the years. There was disgust as the crash pictures were offered to a US tabloid for $1m within hours of the accident. Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer, spoke of “blood on the hands” of every tabloid editor who had bought photographs. In the aftermath, the press attempted to “virtue signal” their way out of the situation, as The News of the World wrote that they are “determined that yobs with cameras masquerading as photographers will be cut off forever from the respectable newspaper world.”
Globally, the International Herald Tribune wrote about the “hysteria and hypocrisy of the London tabloid press” – yet the public showed no sign of relenting. Sales of tribute editions increased so much that a Swedish paper mill was sought out to increase print deliveries, as Britain ran out of paper. The New York Times, devoted 40% of its news space to Diana, whilst The Times dedicated 26 of 28 news pages. The Sun increased its circulation by a million copies on the day after her death.
However, nothing exemplified the hypocritical shift in the tone of the media, as the American magazine the National Enquirer. They were forced to print the following:
‘We apologise for the Princess Diana page one headline DI GOES SEX MAD, which is still on the stands at some locations. It is currently being replaced with a special 72-page tribute issue: A FAREWELL TO THE PRINCESS WE ALL LOVED.’
Yet the media would not let themselves become the story for long. And with their conservatism, the Windsors had handed them a gift. The Sun was the strongest in its attack on their response;
“Goodnight, Sweet Princess … “She was Royal but she was Special – because she was one of us…Your People are suffering… SPEAK TO US, MA’AM…Your people have spoken – now you must Ma’am … Some critics say Britain has lost its sense of nationhood. That the traditional values of our great kingdom have broken down. They say that the anything goes values of the Sixties and the get-rich-quick mentality of the Eighties have made us interested in ourselves alone…TELL THAT to the tens of thousands who queue through the night outside St James’s Palace…TELL THAT to the hundreds of thousands who have laid flowers or given a message…TELL THAT to the millions who still cannot control their tears.
It wasn’t restricted to the tabloids, as an editorial in The Times urged Buckingham Palace to forget protocol, ending with a stark warning that “Failure to gauge correctly the expectations of the public could turn a melancholy mood into an ugly one.”
Part Four: Speaking as a Grandmother
In the febrile atmosphere, Blair, operating through Prince Charles and his advisers, warned that in their perceived indifference to the country’s grief, the Windsors were creating a divide that may soon become irreparable. Four months earlier, the public had rejected 18 years of Tory rule in a dramatic and bloody way. Now the public was giving the Windsors a stark reminder that they only remained at the helm thanks to their consent.
Blair was adamant that they would need to break with protocol. First, they must leave their Balmoral bunker and meet the crowds. William and Harry would need to be seen by the public, to show the human side of losing a mother, and attempt to cool the atmosphere. Secondly, Diana would need a public funeral and a longer procession route to match the ever growing crowds. Thirdly, the Queen must address the nation, and the flag would need to fly half-mast above Buckingham Palace. The Sun agreed:
“Who gives a damn about the stuffy rules of protocol? The people want the monarchy to join publicly in their mourning for Diana…Why hasn’t the Queen broadcast a personal statement? Every hour that the Palace remains empty adds to the public anger at what they appear to be a snub to the People’s Princess.”
Yet precisely at a time when even life-long monarchists were beginning to question its purpose, Blair became their only champion. He fronted the morning interviews, and asked the public to respect that they had a lot to cope with, and that they had to plan the funeral. After people compared his iconic comments to the silence of Prince Charles, he claimed “I know those are very strongly the feelings of the Royal Family as well, who are trying to cope in a tremendously difficult situation”
When he appeared on Breakfast with Frost, he stressed that he remained a monarchist – a quite surreal position to be in as a serving prime minister. Had this be any other Labour leader, perhaps things would have been different. Coming in the wake of an intense five years of scandal, divorce, affairs, media intrusion, toe sucking and Diana bashing, a radical populist such as Foot, Benn or Corbyn would have seen an opportunity to hang the outdated establishment to dry. Blair could have positioned himself as the new monarch. But as we now know, it would have been unsustainable.
The Windsors returned to meet their people; “What I say to you now, as your Queen and as a grandmother, I say from my heart. I want to pay tribute to Diana myself. She was an exceptional and gifted human being. In good times and bad, she never lost her capacity to smile and laugh, nor to inspire others with her warmth and kindness.”
Blair had bounced the Queen into her first live TV broadcast for 38 years. When Charles, William and Harry met mourners outside Kensington Palace, the sense of relief was palpable. When they finally relented, and returned to London, The Sun told its readers:
“106 hours … then finally the Queen does the decent thing on the flag…it gives us no pleasure to say this, but the Royal Family have let us down. Of course they are deep in grief too but we are continually told that they always sacrifice person feelings for the sake of duty. The time has come when those words have to be matched by deeds. This was such a time.”
The Times welcomed the change, but added: “The Palace should not have needed reminding that the media must be used, promptly and creatively, if a modern head of state is to communicate with her people.”
The Mirror wrote that the country was “In Safe Hands”. As the week had begun, The Verve’s Drugs Don’t Work had been adopted by radio stations as the anthemic tribute to Diana. The ex shoe-gazers from Wigan formed the unlikeliest of tributes. But as the anger cooled, and order was restored, the public turned to an establishment figure in Elton John to lead them in their grief. Candle In The Wind, quickly reworked, became the fastest-selling single in history, selling 658,000 copies on its first day of release, and over 1.5 million in its first week. The funeral at Westminster Abbey was televised globally and the BBC estimated that 2.5 billion watched – about half the people on earth.
Part Five:New Britain
Not everybody shared in the national outpouring of grief. The proud republican Tony Benn wrote: “I hope by this time next week we will be able to re-enter the real world again, because there is something slightly sick about this.”
Boris Johnson, then a young Telegraph columnist, showed that he still had the knack, even then, for completely misjudging the public mood. He lamented the un-British like response to her death and compared it to the faux emotion shown for the death of dictators. In his column, titled “Where is this, Argentina?” Boris likened it to a
‘Latin American carnival of grief…Many people, including many intelligent women, are infuriated by the Argentine peasant hagiography of the princess. We all know there was another side to the story,”
He was roundly criticised for his tactlessness. Tony Blair said, the reaction to the death of the Princess was “something more profound than anything I can remember in the totality of my life…We must commend a sense of national grief at the moment. It’s not just grief as a nation, it is personal to each and every one of us.”
In the Daily Mail, a picture of a distraught man with a Mohican haircut laying a huge wreath was among the many images used to demonstrate that ‘from punk to pensioner, grief knew no barrier’.
It was the closest that Britain had come to national mourning. Whilst 50 years earlier, the ‘stiff upper lip’ had helped Britain defeat Hitler, this was a new and supposedly compassionate generation. On the Saturday of the funeral the nation came to a shuddering halt. The NatWest Cricket Trophy was postponed, as were all other sporting events. No betting shops opened and all horse racing ceased. Pubs and cinemas promised not to open until 2pm, and supermarkets closed as a mark of respect. The national lottery draw was cancelled, as no amount of millions won would bring her back to life. It was a volatile period, as pressure grew on the Scotland’s Football Association chief executive to resign after he delayed a decision to re-schedule Scotland’s World Cup qualifier out of respect for Diana. His crime had been to propose playing the game the day after the funeral.
Tony Blair recognised what a huge moment it would be in Britain’s history. When Blair spoke of pain, he talked in the royal ‘we’. The public lapped it up. A month after her death, Blair became “Mr 93%” – as an opinion poll on Blair’s performance reached 93 %. The unprecedentedly high figure – thought to be a record for a democratically elected politician. 3 per cent thought he was doing a bad job and 4 per cent answered “don’t know”. In the polarised political world in which we now live, it is difficult to see how this could ever be replicated.
Twenty years on, and this summer another tragedy struck our shores. Coming just days after a terrible general election night, Theresa May had the chance to speak for the nation over Grenfell Tower. With the eyes of the world on her, she couldn’t find the right words to say. She was accused of lacking “humanity” by her own side. It was left to the opposition leader to speak to the residents on behalf of “the people”. In the aftermath of the fire, Corbyn was pictured hugging a young woman, who was searching for a missing girl.
Had she still been around, Diana would have been the first person to the tower. But it has been left to an old school republican to take up her mantle. Corbyn didn’t need to be told what to do at Grenfell and few in the media accused him of political posturing. In the post-Diana world, Britain is a more compassionate and open place to live. Public figures talk openly about depression without derision. She pre-empted the social media age, and in a world where we now share every inner most private thought, her open approach does not seem quite so radical. But it was.
Diana took on the establishment and undermined them in pursuit of what she saw as noble causes. When she first burst on to the scene in 1981, no one anticipated that the shy girl could change the world in so many ways. She made the Windsors look out of touch, with the ease with which she communicated with ordinary people.
Just like Diana changed everything, the political class has yet to come to terms with the Corbyn approach to politics. Twenty years on, the British people see a similar humbleness and underdog spirit in Corbyn. His fanatical supporters see him as the “The People’s Prime Minister” – and the natural way in which Corbyn interacts with people was seen as a key factor in his general election turnaround.
In January 1995, when asked for advice, Diana urged Tony Blair to “go to meet down and outs on the Bullring, go to the London Lighthouse to meet Aids victims or visit a hospital.” Labour have finally taken her advice on board, and we are about to find out if Britain is ready to elect the self styled “People’s Prime Minister”.