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A Shaft of Light and Gaiety
If you weren't there, it's hard to imagine just how grim a place Britain was in the summer of 1981. Race riots convulsed its cities. The economy was in ruins, with large parts of the industrial north of England and the Midlands reduced to rusted wasteland. The government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was not just disliked by half the population; with a vehemence that still seems shocking 30 years on, it was positively loathed.
Into this desperate gloom, the wedding of Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, to Diana Spencer, just 20 and a very innocent 20 at that projected a shaft of light and gaiety. (That endless train behind her dress! Kiri Te Kanawa's voice!) Whatever happened in the half soap opera, half tragedy that followed, the sheer glamour of the wedding endowed Diana with a genuine popularity no, love that she never lost.
The point about Diana that the royal family did not understand when she was selected for the Prince's hand was that, like everyone else, she would grow up. The ingenue fairy-tale princess became a confident (albeit devious) young woman, comfortable with the happily mixed-up, multicultural, undeferential society that Britain had become, passionate about controversial causes such as the fights against AIDS and land mines and in the end openly contemptuous of the serial indignities to which the family into which she had married subjected her. Even had she lived, Diana's story would have changed attitudes to the monarchy. The revelation that her husband had continued an affair with his true love (and now second wife) Camilla Parker Bowles while married to Diana coupled with a rash of royal divorces replaced the allure and mystery of the monarchy with something much more tawdry. And then Diana died.
The Long Week of Grief
Nobody nobody was ready for what happened to Britain in the week after Diana was killed in a Paris car crash. A nation that was supposed to be emotionally stunted, with stiff backbones and stiffer upper lips, descended into the sort of public grief normally reserved for the last act of second-rate Italian operas except that it was genuine. Stuck at their home in Scotland, the royals seemed woefully out of touch with the sentiments of their people. Only at the last minute did the Queen walk into the crowds that were mourning Diana outside Buckingham Palace and show that she shared the national sense of loss.
The criticism of the royal family that week did not lead to a sustained increase in republican sentiment in Britain. To the contrary: once the Queen returned to London, the numbers of those saying they wanted to ditch her dropped to historic lows. But that extraordinary week changed the nature of the relationship between Crown and people forever. The crowds mourning Diana were not subjects. In a way that the revolutionaries of the 17th century would have understood, they were defining for themselves what they expected of a family, one of whose members was their head of state, and compelling that family to act accordingly. It was as if modern Britain were saying, "We get it. We're more than happy to have you around. But you do the job on our terms."
A Link to the Past Is Broken
Before that sentiment could solidify into a modern conception of the monarchy, however, there was one more sad piece of business to attend to. On March 30, 2002, aged 101, George VI's wife and Elizabeth II's mother the Queen Mum died. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets of London to see her coffin. The Queen Mum was a direct link to the tumultuous days of the abdication, to "the war." (There is only one war in British speech.) But she was a link, also, to a Britain, and monarchy, that is long gone. Deeply conservative, she was a blue-blooded member of the aristocratic class that had once provided wives for royal males. No more. There have been eight weddings in the Queen's immediate family since 1947, but in only one case that of Prince Charles did the royal marry into a titled family. The Windsors have become middle class.
Along with that social transformation has come a constitutional one. Since 348 people signed a document demanding reform called Charter 88 (I was one of them, I am very proud to say), Britain has gone through more constitutional change than in any other period in the past 300 years. Subnational parliaments have been established in Wales and Scotland, London has an elected mayor, a charter of human rights has been constitutionally protected, a new Supreme Court has been set up, taxpayer support for the royals has been reduced, and soon, Parliaments will sit for a fixed term. The Queen remains head of state, but in any real sense, she is the least powerful monarch Britain has ever had. You won't have heard that among the hushed voices of the global TV commentators who prattle on about Britain's wonderful sense of tradition, but it is true.