THE death of Diana, Princess of Wales, on 31 August 1997 still haunts the public imagination. I was involved in the BBC’s coverage of her funeral, and I will never forget the extraordinary atmosphere the night before, as crowds camped out along the Mall.
The grief pulsed through the air, and not only for Diana. People found themselves weeping for loved ones that they had never wept for. It was a public repudiation of the very British qualities of reticence and emotional restraint. Even at the time, it seemed terrible that William and Harry, the two bereaved princes, should have to walk publicly behind Diana’s coffin. There was an undertone of mutiny against the establishment, even rebellion.
In this anniversary year, we have been asked to remember the qualities with which Diana’s name is associated: kindness, compassion, and service. But we have also come to realise, in the years since her death, that she was a deeply troubled spirit, who arguably caused as much pain as she suffered. Her extraordinary charisma was built on a fragile sense of self. The huge emotions stirred by her death reflected all that was unresolved in her temperament. They also magnified tensions that were, and remain, unresolved in our society.
What we are now left dealing with is the legacy of her unreconciled characteristics. Her kindness, compassion, and sense of service are rightly remembered with thanksgiving. She worked hard to bring comfort to people who might otherwise have been shunned — AIDS sufferers among them.
Her determination to support the vulnerable has helped to transform public attitudes. There is much more concern now for injured and abused children, for service personnel wounded at war, for victims of terrorism and other disasters. Her example opened the way for the public displays of resilience after the Manchester and London bombings. She instinctively adhered to the fundamental theme of the gospel in her conviction that love trumps all.
But there are more negative aspects of her legacy which have also taken root among us. Diana played the marital victim with extraordinary skill, manipulating public sympathy in her cause. She has left us with a tendency to see the vulnerable as inevitable victims of Establishment plots and cover-ups. The debate over Sir Martin Moore-Bick’s suitability to chair the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster has been worrying in this respect.
As professional activists vie to represent the victims, we should beware of giving ground to mob justice. Being able to identify oneself with a cause and emote in public are not always signs of virtue: savvy agitators and populist politicians regularly do both for their own ends.
Empathy is important, but, in the Christian pastoral tradition, empathy is linked to a measure of detachment to ensure that judgement is wise as well as kind.
“The day Diana died” - David Winter’s Diary