As Britain marks the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death with commemorations, documentaries and books, a part of her legacy is how she reshaped the monarchy that rejected her, and how she reshaped Britain, too
After the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 20 years ago, London felt like a city on the verge of a revolution. Suddenly everything was up for grabs, even the monarchy. For a few crazy weeks, this most enduring of institutions looked as if it might implode under the weight of so much emotion.
For anyone there at the time, it was as electrifying as it was bewildering. The mood was febrile, angry, reckless. Flowers were piled knee-deep at the gates of the royal palaces; grown men wept openly in the streets; mild-mannered citizens inveighed against the usually blameless queen for what they believed was an inadequate response to a national crisis. Centuries of stiff-upper-lipped repression boiled over in a great howl of collective anguish.
Eventually the public regained its grip, and the monarchy — chastened and battered, but a monarchy nonetheless — endured. But as Britain on Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death with commemorations, documentaries and books, a central, if unlikely, piece of her legacy is how she reshaped the monarchy that rejected her, and how she reshaped Britain, too.
Diana in life was a loose cannon, an unpredictable wild card; in death, she had a galvanizing effect. Britain is very different from what it was in Diana’s era, partly because of a younger generation less enamored with old conventions. But her death also opened a door, for better or worse, for the country to become more emotional and expressive, and more inclined to value gut feeling over expert opinion even in such matters as Brexit, its vote last year to leave the European Union.
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Faced with a clear choice — modernize or die — the monarchy decided to modernize, led by Queen Elizabeth II but bolstered by a new generation of better-adjusted, better-prepared royals.
“The Windsors, whose most perilous moment came at Diana’s death, in fact owe their endurance to her example,” said Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for The Guardian, a left-leaning newspaper. “The queen is particularly alert to learning lessons from experience, and in this case the lesson was, ‘Don’t get on the wrong side of public opinion.’ ”