A new Diana moment?

Following Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s incendiary interview with Oprah Winfrey, comparisons have been made with previous royal crises. PAULA MITCHELL looks at the events surrounding the death of Princess Diana in 1997 which rocked the capitalist establishment and asks, what is the significance of this new royal drama?

On 7 March, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle gave an interview to Oprah Winfrey in which they accused the royal family of racism, of lying about Meghan in their briefings, and ignoring her pleas for help with her mental health. Over twelve million people in the UK watched the interview and many more have watched and discussed it since. #AbolishTheMonarchy trended on social media. Tabloids described the impact as “utter devastation”. The Palace was reported to be in “meltdown”. Harry “used the atomic bomb”; it was a “declaration of war”.

The front page of the Mirror newspaper described the consequences of the interview as the worst crisis for the monarchy in 85 years, referring to the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936. Lots of people have pointed out that this comment overlooks the Prince Andrew sex scandal, a potential powder keg. But importantly it also overlooks the enormous events that engulfed the monarchy following the death of Princess Diana in 1997. 

When Diana died in a car crash in a Paris tunnel there was an astonishing outpouring of public emotion which shook the whole of the capitalist establishment. As reports of her death came out on television and radio, it was as if the whole nation suddenly stopped, stunned. Hundreds of thousands gathered at Kensington Palace. According to Ipsos Mori, one person in six laid flowers in tribute. By the weekend of the funeral, over ten million had signed the book of condolence.

During 18 long years of Thatcherism’s cuts and privatisation, following mighty class struggles in the 1980s including Liverpool and the miners’ strike, the ascendency of Blairism in the Labour Party completed a process of turning it into a party that operated totally in the interests of big business.

Popular mood

When there is a lack of a mass working class voice, charismatic individuals can play a bigger role than they might otherwise. A figure that captures a certain degree of the popular mood can rise out of even the elite layers of the ruling class. Princess Diana was one of these. She came to be seen as an anti-establishment figure.

Unlike the cruelty of the Tories and the cold distance of the royal family, Diana was seen as being in touch with ordinary people. She was viewed as an innocent, only 19 years old when she was married to Prince Charles. Appearing warm and caring, she championed causes such as the elimination of land mines; she hugged people dying of Aids and sufferers of leprosy. The more the apparently uncaring treatment of her by the royal family became clear, the more her public popularity was cemented.

Diana was relentlessly pursued by paparazzi. The press billionaires were both hungry for the profits to be made from public interest in Diana, and seizing that interest as a way of helping shore up support for the system. The crash that killed her came as the car she was in was pursued by photographers.

This moment exposed a big transformation in the attitudes of working class people in Britain. Although herself a rich woman, Diana’s treatment and death exposed the cruelty of the rich and the ugly role of the pursuit of profit in the media, and was a conduit, albeit in a distorted way, for years of anger to be expressed.

In the days after her death the contrast in Diana’s style and that of the rest of the royals couldn’t have been greater, as they stayed hidden away and apparently emotionless. There was a huge drop in support, and dislike of Charles especially, who experienced a 40% drop in public support between 1990 and 1997.

The talk everywhere, including amongst capitalist commentators, was of passing over a generation – ie missing out Charles and passing straight to William. Those who thought the royal family wouldn’t survive another 50 years outnumbered those who thought it would by 15%. One in four said the monarchy should be abolished: 31% thought the Queen should stand down – for William (then a child) not for Charles.

New Labour prime minister Tony Blair played a big part in the re-stabilisation that the ruling class required. Blair rode the wave of his landslide election, the result of the enormous hatred of the Tories, which has taken place just four months before Diana’s death. The master of the soundbite managed to sum up the mood with his phrase “the people’s princess”.

But having completed the process of turning Labour into New Labour, a party big business could rely on, Blair had no intention of turning the mood against the royal family and the rich into a mood against the class system more generally. He used his position to help save the monarchy and the capitalist establishment, for example advising the royal family to show humanity and go on walkabout. After this happened, the polls on abolition returned more to normal levels. Nonetheless a huge job of rehabilitation was necessary, mainly resting on the new generation.

Older workers still like the Queen. The ruling class, with the media playing a central part, has worked hard to portray her as a symbol of stability, emphasising her dignity as she sits above all the shenanigans of the generations below her. But she is 94. So it has been important to encourage a positive image for the younger, ‘trendy’ royals, especially among younger people in society.  

A January 2020 Delta poll showed only 22% of ‘millennials’ thought Charles was making a positive contribution to society, compared to 54% of those over 60. In both groups William was more popular than Charles, on 42% and 70% respectively. A YouGov poll in the autumn showed that Prince William had overtaken the Queen as the most popular royal. The younger generation have been the real hope to re-establish and maintain the monarchy.

Prince Harry has consciously drawn parallels between the experience of Meghan and that of his mother Diana, presenting Meghan as another outsider who was treated badly by the family and the press.

Even giving the Oprah interview itself echoes Diana’s Panorama interview in 1995, just two years before her death. While there are now allegations against the BBC that she was misled into giving that interview, it was a similar attempt by her to put her own side of the story, seen as a kind of bid for freedom. Similar personal revelations were made. In Diana’s case that there were “three of us in this marriage”, in Meghan’s case accusations of racism. Both told of their mental health issues being ignored.

There is no doubt that the role of press billionaires in their pursuit of profits is despicable, and riddled through with racism and sexism. Despite measures regarding press intrusion being forced due to public pressure after Diana’s death – bringing in an Editors Code of Practice – they have still been relentless against Meghan.

Of course, no complaints are made by Harry about the lies and distortions in the media against figures who challenge the profit system, even when only mildly; the role of the mainstream media against Jeremy Corbyn being a recent case in point. The only way to deal with the press is for the profit motive to be removed, and for the media to be democratically nationalised under workers’ control.

There is equally no chance that there is no racism or sexism in the royal family – they run like a sore through all capitalist institutions, capitalism itself being an unequal and oppressive system that divides us on the basis of race, gender and much more in order to protect itself.

No stability

But the exposure of the monarchy on both of these issues comes at a time when protest around racism has grown with Black Lives Matter. The revelations follow #MeToo and coincide with the current anger around violence against women and sexual harassment following the murder of Sarah Everard. In a YouGov poll the day after the interview, only 15% of 18-24 year olds expressed sympathy with the Queen while 61% thought Harry and Meghan had been treated unfairly.

Similarly to Diana’s death coming after decades of Thatcherism’s cuts and privatisation, the Harry and Meghan interview comes after a decade of savage austerity and now Covid, during which working class people, and women in particular, have paid a hefty price while the rich, yet again, have enriched themselves further.

Again there is talk about passing over Prince Charles to the next generation. But now, the new generation is itself tarnished, with Prince William and Kate also receiving opprobrium. Action has been taken to rehabilitate them immediately – Kate went to the Clapham Common vigil for Sarah Everard and William and Kate visited ambulance workers to hear about their mental wellbeing.  

The short-term consequences of the Harry and Meghan crisis are not on the scale of Diana’s death. The royal family, or at least its advisers, have learned some lessons. Diana’s interview, in which she suggested Charles was not fit to be king, led to the Queen insisting on a divorce. This time – though criticised for not condemning racism – the official palace response affirmed Harry, Meghan and Archie as part of the royal family.

Meghan has not played the same role in public consciousness as Diana. This doesn’t mean that there is more general contentment than before. The decades since Diana’s death have seen the working class suffer terribly with only the brief flash of Corbynism beginning to offer a coherent political expression to the anger – which as we have explained elsewhere failed to rise to the task and allowed itself to be defeated by the right-wing without a struggle. In this context the fragmentation of politics and the idea of the ‘little people’ against the rich establishment has grown.

In some ways Diana was the first of the many anti-establishment establishment figures that have arisen to both the left and right since. But Harry and Meghan have not been picked up in that way. Harry’s ratings fell dramatically after he started stepping away from being a ‘working’ royal, from a positive rating of over 60 in 2012 to just one in October 2020. Meghan dropped from over 30 in 2017 to minus 26 in October.

As a millionaire actress, she has never captured the same public position as Diana. She is not seen as conducting good works, and has from the beginning been the subject of demonization rather than idolisation in the tabloid press. Harry himself has openly led a ‘celebrity’ lifestyle of excess, and has his own chequered record on issues like racism, being photographed in a Nazi costume at a party. His complaints of being cut off, while living on his share of a £13 million inheritance from Diana, do not play well.

In contrast to the mood after Diana’s death, now 79% think the royal family will survive. However, this doesn’t mean that the Harry and Meghan crisis doesn’t matter. One thing that is important about the polls is that they show sympathy for any parts of the royal family is low – sympathy for the Queen only sits at 26%.

Monarchy in the capitalist state

For many people the furore around Harry and Megan feels like an irrelevance (the day after the interview, 48% of people said they’re not interested in royal family news), or is at best mild entertainment much like the antics of celebrities. That in itself undermines the ability for the monarchy to play the role it needs to in capitalist society.

While commonly seen as a harmless relic of older times, good for the tourist industry, the monarchy is in fact part of the capitalist state machine, ultimately in place to defend the interests of capitalism.

The monarchy is a useful part of the ruling class’s tool box to engender feelings of national unity amongst working class people, to hold them to supporting the capitalist state. And there’s more to it. The Queen gives assent to legislation, and MPs and the armed forces swear allegiance to her. While this might sound like feudal vestiges without meaning, in reality they point to serious powers. The monarchy holds reserve powers to dissolve governments, call elections and even declare martial law. It was the Queen’s power of ‘prorogation’ that the Tories turned to in 2019 to suspend parliament to try to avoid scrutiny of Brexit.

Famously the Queen’s powers were used in November 1975 in Australia, when the governor-general, the Queen’s representative, removed the elected Labour prime minister Gough Whitlam. Whitlam had been pushed by pressure from the working class and social movements to carry out substantial reforms, including free higher education, universal health care, equal pay for women and Aboriginal land rights. But as economic crisis developed, the capitalists demanded cuts, and fearing the power of a mass movement pushing him to go further, they also demanded the removal of Whitlam.

It is for these reasons that the Socialist Party says the monarchy should be abolished. It is for the same reasons that the capitalist class will put in great efforts to rehabilitate them, especially the younger generation. They can only play their role as a reserve weapon for capitalism if there is social support for them.

Attitudes to the royal family dramatically changed during the twentieth century. There is no longer, for the majority of people, an almost mystical reverence. One example of that is the contrast between the street celebrations for the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977 and diamond jubilee in 2012 – the numbers of people who took part fell from ten million to two million. Nonetheless, the polls show that in a context of public support for capitalist institutions falling to historically low levels, public support for the monarchy has remained fairly constant.   

This Harry and Meghan episode can therefore be important in the longer run. It can appear to blow over but it adds to the general loss of trust in the capitalist establishment. We face the prospect of emerging from the Covid crisis – which in itself has so far led to over 100,000 deaths, 700,000 job losses and millions struggling on 80% of their normal pay – into a period of economic crisis and social and political instability. The capitalists want the working class to pay, just as after the financial crash of 2007-08.

The situation is a lot less stable for the ruling class than it was in 1997 with their trusted Tony Blair in power. They now have a Tory Party that is unreliable in representing their interests, and a Labour Party in which the right wing have ruthlessly crushed Corbynism but are reviving Blairism in a different economic and social context. So they face economic crisis and the consequences of Covid and a Tory Brexit without a reliable government (for them) at the helm. Inevitably anger and struggle will explode.

The working class faces the task of building its own independent organisation and leadership, with far more potential power to change the situation than any accidental individual figure could ever have. The loss of trust in different parts of the capitalist state machine is an indicator of the anger, and shows its weakened ability to prevent struggle. If the monarchy has been even a little damaged in recent weeks, another tool in the armoury is blunted.