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Mourning sickness

Blair's Britain AD - After Diana
Beware the rampant id
The lonely crowd
A tyrannical new religion
The new protocol
Tragic lives

Blair's Britain AD - after Diana

Mick Hume

'The triumph of the New Labour establishment over the old was evident at the funeral, where the charity workers replaced the generals and Elton John took the part of Vera Lynn'

So what was all that really about? How could the death of a celebrity princess in a drink-driving accident spark off such an unprecedented national grief-fest? And what does the reaction tell us about the state of British society AD - After Diana?

The emotional outburst was about something more than the death of Diana. Many who mourned admitted as much, when they said they had been shocked by the intensity of their own feelings on hearing the news. Overnight, normally rational people somehow felt they 'knew' and even 'loved' a woman who in life had meant no more to them than any other soap opera star.

Britain was clearly ready for a tragedy, in the mood for mourning, geared up to grieve over something. Diana's death provided a pretext for these pent-up emotions to come out. That was why it could so quickly assume a symbolic significance out of all proportion to the event.

The real significance of the funeral and related tributes was that they allowed millions to come together in a kind of community of suffering. At a time when many have lost faith in the old traditions and values which once held them together, when society seems ever-more fragmented, this was a rare opportunity for the nation to speak with a common voice.

People searching anxiously for some certainty and sense of belonging in their lives grabbed that opportunity with both hands, joining in any new ritual - the laying of flowers, the queuing for hours to sign books of commemoration - that could give a fleeting sense of being 'all in this together', of sharing pain and a sense of loss.

Diana herself may not have been the reason why these rituals took hold so strongly; but as the woman who went on television to advertise her own experience of pain and victimhood as her credentials to be 'Queen in people's hearts', she was the perfect focus around which the community of suffering could unite. Diana was an idol whose time had come.

But the reaction to Diana's death did more than capture the mood of the moment. It also confirmed some important changes that will still be making themselves felt long after the floral tributes have wilted. Perhaps most importantly, it revealed a major shift at the top of society, with the triumph of the New Labour elite and its values over the old British establishment.

'I want to begin by saying how proud I was to be British on Saturday', Tony Blair told the TUC the week after the funeral, 'when the whole world could see our country united in grief, compassion and a determination that her memory should be honoured and good made to come of the tragedy that was her death'.

For Blair's team this was not just a tragedy to be mourned, but an opportunity to celebrate a new sense of national unity. In the absence of anything else, national grief became the symbol of the British way of life, and New Labour waved it for all it was worth. They have learned that, in our modern society of atomised and anxious individuals, they have far more power to shape and structure popular opinion through the media. Much of what was seen as a spontaneous expression of the will of 'the People' - the backlash against royal protocol and the protests about press intrusion, for example - was in fact orchestrated from the top.

New Labour and its supporters successfully manipulated the mood of national mourning in order to secure their own authority. From the Queen downwards, the old establishment simply crumbled and gave in to every one of their demands: lower that flag, launch that charity, cry those tears, sing that song, applaud that speech, restrain those reporters.

The Blairs, soulmates of Princess Diana, spoke for the nation. New Tory leader William Hague might as well have been in Balmoral for all the say he had. The triumph of the New Labour establishment over the old was evident during the funeral at Westminster Abbey, where the charity workers replaced the generals and Elton John took the part of Vera Lynn.

Many see these changes as a positive part of New Labour's modernisation plans. After all, who would want to defend the values of the old establishment, whether it be the traditional monarchy or the Murdoch press? But if you think they were bad, look at what is replacing them.

What exactly is the new society that Blair wants us to be proud of? It is a society whose values are so degraded and expectations so low that it can only feel united and morally virtuous in response to tragedy and loss. As other writers in the pages that follow indicate, the dominant Diana-speak of the age embraces the infantile notion that emotions are superior to intellect as a guide to life. It focuses on the suffering of victims rather than the achievements of heroes; so Earl Spencer's funeral oration spoke of Diana's 'vulnerability' and 'insecurity' as the qualities others could admire. Its message is that people are not really up to much, that we all need therapy and that the most we can do to change the world for the better is to lay a few flowers and give each other one of Diana's famous hugs.

The new order also insists we conform to an etiquette as strict and coercive as any protocol of the past. So the media was subjected to the most stringent censorship to ensure nothing 'offensive' reached the public in the weeks after Diana's death. No criticisms of the princess were allowed, Di jokes were banned, anything 'tasteless' was taken off the air and the newsagent's shelves. And because it was done in the name of Diana, icon of the new Britain, nobody was allowed to complain.

This is the shape of things to come in Blair's Britain AD. Those who think we could never again witness such a mawkish display of mourning sickness as was seen around Diana's funeral should think again.

The reaction to Diana's death might have been described as 'unique', but in fact it fits into a pattern of disparate events over the past couple of years which have been turned into national carnivals for a community of suffering: the Dunblane massacre in Britain, the scandal over a paedophile murder ring in Belgium, the shooting of an anti-drugs journalist in Ireland, the killing of a local politician by the Basque separatist group ETA in Spain. Each of them sparked off huge outpourings of popular emotion, morbid expressions of national unity in suffering, and witch-hunts. Diana's death simply took these trends to new heights. Where will mourning sickness strike next?

After the response to Dunblane, LM identified a British society 'ill at ease with itself', with 'an insatiable appetite for victims'. We concluded: 'Bring on the next moral spectacle.' (May 1996) Princess Diana may well be 'irreplaceable' to those who worship her; but rest assured there will be another tragic victim along shortly.

Reproduced from LM issue 104, October 1997

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