Rebuilding the monarchy - how the Queen restored the royal family's reputation
After Diana's death, the Queen angered a grieving public with her inaction. Simon Heffer looks at how she restored the royal family's reputation following the backlash
Diana, Princess of Wales, had been dead just a few hours when signs of a sort of cultural revolution became apparent. The unprecedented, and at times unhinged, expression of public grief has been well-documented; less so another innovation, an increasingly ugly mood towards the Queen, as monarch and head of the British royal family, for her reaction to the death of her former daughter-in-law.
Until then, criticism of the Queen had been rare - when Lord Altrincham attacked her courtiers as "complacent" and her for sounding like "a priggish schoolgirl" in 1957, a man punched him. The judge who sentenced the assailant said he had struck a blow every man in England would have wished to have aimed.
The atmosphere in September 1997 was unsettlingly different. Some of the media - the part that regards the monarchy not as the dignified part of the British constitution but as a soap opera - had swiftly found the scapegoat many, in their unbridled emotion, instinctively sought: the Prince of Wales. But the belief that the whole House of Windsor had blood on its hands was encouraged and the Queen was not exempt from it.
The first expressions of outrage came when she took her bereaved grandchildren, Princes William and Harry, to church that Sunday morning. Arbiters of public opinion felt it was terrible that these boys had been taken out when still palpably in shock at the death of their mother. It was deemed this must have been the Queen's decision and was viewed as heartless: the old Windsor notion of "business as usual", by which the Royal Family carries on whatever else happens, had overridden the boys' feelings.
Thereafter, the Queen was more readily attacked: for the Royal standard not flying at half-mast over Buckingham Palace, another sign of utter heartlessness; and for not returning to London from Scotland to participate in the public mourning. She was also blamed for making the princes walk behind their mother's coffin to Westminster Abbey. And, once the initial furore passed, comment continued about how she bore a longer-term responsibility for the Diana's unsatisfactory marriage, the princess's unhappiness, and the divorce.
Years later, Lady Angela Oswald, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and wife of her racing manager, gave an interview in which she confirmed how angry Queen Elizabeth had been at the Queen's treatment. She said the princes had wanted to attend church after their mother's death - "if you are a Christian and your mother has been killed, it is a comfort going to church". Lady Angela also attacked as "selfish" those who expected the Queen to "abandon her grandsons" and go to London.
The mood was not rational and it was manipulated for cynical reasons by the tabloid press and by politicians. People failed to, or simply did not want to, understand that for all its public role, the Royal Family was, above all, a family and the needs of two young boys who had lost their mother were paramount. The Queen felt her prime responsibility was her grandsons and her son, and certainly not to grandstand in the tidal wave of emotion almost exclusively felt by those who had never met the late princess.
There were failings, but they were understandable. An attempt was made to explain that the Royal standard is never flown at half-mast. It is the monarch's personal standard, and there is always a living monarch. Few were in a mood to listen. So the Union flag - at half-mast - flew over the Buckingham Palace instead. British Prime Minister Tony Blair feared the public temper was so ugly that he advised the Queen to return to London earlier than she wished to address the nation and do an ill-advised walkabout outside the palace in the hope of calming the mood. It was unclear by then that some people really wanted to be calmed.
Before the funeral, we heard that police would be saturating the route of the procession for fear of violence. It was a clear indication of how febrile things were. The Queen sat in Westminster Abbey and endured a hypocritical and offensive speech by Earl Spencer, who perhaps was beside himself with grief. She was increasingly overshadowed by Mr Blair, whose spin doctors effectively took charge of the Queen's public relations.
By the time of the Queen's and the Duke of Edinburgh's golden wedding in November 1997, Blair seemed to dominate their anniversary walkabout. Morale had reached an ebb far lower than during the annus horribilis of 1992.
It is an irony probably lost on the Queen's critics that in the ensuing 20 years, she has rebuilt respect and affection for the monarchy by sticking to the same dignified, restrained, dutiful and utterly decent manner for which she was so roundly attacked in September 1997. The near-hysterical mood has long passed, and possibly many who contributed to it realise that things went too far: and the Queen was not culpable. The Duke of Cambridge has said that she went to extraordinary lengths to shield her grandchildren from the events, even removing newspapers from Balmoral and ensuring the princes stayed there for as long as possible to deal with the shock and mourn privately.
The Duke has said it was a collective decision to walk behind the coffin. Prince Harry, who earlier said no child should have to do such a thing, now tells the BBC: "I'm very glad I was part of it."
Bair, interviewed for the same BBC documentary, said that "I think by the end of that week we had come to almost a new settlement, if you like, between monarchy and people". It is unclear what that settlement is. The only difference in the relationship between the Queen and her people is that she is more highly regarded than ever.
The monarchy has, in the intervening 20 years, avoided great scandals and embarrassments. The coming generation, represented by Princess Diana's sons, are popular.
The Prince of Wales' public image has improved since his remarriage. But most of all, in two decades when the reputation of the British political class - the people who would lead a republic - has been soiled by matters such as the Iraq war controversy, the financial crash and the expenses scandal, the Queen - in her constancy - has set an unimpeachable example of integrity and service. Addressing the UN General Assembly in 2010, she was described by Ban-ki-Moon as "an anchor for our age". And since 1997, Australia has been just one of several of her realms to choose not to become a republic in referenda.
By her example, the Queen has stilled criticism not just of herself, but of the institution of monarchy. And she has accomplished this not least by having kept her nerve in 1997 and acknowledging her people's pain.