Friday, August 31, 2007

The Diana Effect

In April (which seems an eon ago, it was still the Blair era), 15 Royal Navy men got captured by the Iranians, and then proceeded to make fools of themselves, selling their stories and complaining about being "neck-flicked" by Iranians.

The Americans, who unlike the rest of the world, have held fast to an image of Britain set in the 1930's complete with stiff upper lips and butlers, were especially shocked. Time magazine rushed to explain what had changed:

How did Britain get like this? How did a society whose professed virtues were once those of duty, honor and discretion become a place of in-it-for-myself, let-it-all-hang-out emoting? Step forward those two women whose influence, combined — though one suspects they loathed each other — shaped a nation: Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana.

Thatcher first. Her political party may have been called Conservative, but she was in truth one of the most radical leaders Britain has ever had. Thatcher could not abide the cozy and mildly corrupt arrangements that — as she saw it — had condemned post-1945 Britain to a managed decline, and was determined to blow them up. As one of her more waspish M.P.s once said, Thatcher could not see an institution without "hitting it with her handbag." But she never understood that once you removed the need to show deference to any institution — the BBC, the labor unions, the professions — you had undermined them all. If deference to the established order was so bad, why show it (for example) to the monarchy? Moreover — really for the first time in British politics — Thatcher placed market values, not abstract ones of duty and honor, at the heart of a social definition of success. In the 1980s, if you didn't make money (loadsamoney ... ), if you didn't cash in on your talents or luck, then you were worse than an idiot — you were somehow letting the side down.

Diana's contribution was just as subversive of the old Britain. In her later life — through the hugs, the tears, the riveting BBC interview of 1995 — and even more in her death, the Princess of Wales turned traditional British values on their head. It was all right to cry! It was bad to suffer in silence, repress your emotions, say, "Steady on, old girl," and generally act in a tight spot like Trevor Howard on the train platform at the end of Brief Encounter. In today's remake, Howard would be bawling like a baby; or — as we now know — like a young squaddie.

Taken together, Thatcherite and Dianist thought has given us the recent horrors: a situation in which not even members of the armed forces — hell, not even the leaders of the armed forces — seem comfortable framing military obligation in terms of duty and honor, and in which the media's badge of heroism is conferred on those who are merely victims (only for it to be ripped off again when the victims behave less like heroes than heels). It is a sad and miserable tale.

Britain chose the Thatcher effect by voting her in. The Diana effect though was imposed. If Britain didn't have a monarchy, Diana wouldn't have been thrust on the nation (she was just an averagely pretty girl who had no qualifications), and the Dianafication of Britain wouldn't have happened. Is it too late? Could we ditch them after the Queen dies and end the whole sorry saga?


Anonymous said...

"Diana wouldn't have been thrust on the nation (she was just an averagely pretty girl who had no qualifications)"


Anonymous said...

It is a shame you feel like that Snowflake, you could always emigrate to a Banana Republic. I am sure you will feel at home.