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The Royal Democrat

Diana used celebrity to level the tired pretensions of Buckingham Palace. And all Britain embraced her and her cause.

September 07, 1997|Martin Walker | Martin Walker, a contributing editor of Opinion, is the U.S. bureau chief of Britain's the Guardian

WASHINGTON — Diana, princess of Wales, was buried yesterday, but in a most profound sense, reports of her death have been greatly exaggerated. It is not only that she will haunt from her grave the constipated antiquity that is the royal family. To understand why Diana's memory marches triumphantly on and why something essential about her still lives, just look around the modern Britain that she, more than any other single person, embodied.

Lady Di, as we first called her, came into our lives in 1980, at the beginning of the Thatcher era, when Britain was a far different country. It was then economically the sick man of Europe, beset by labor troubles and massive strikes organized by a powerful trade-union movement that still virtually owned the Labor Party. And in 1980, Britain had been under Labor governments for 12 of the last 16 years. It was a Britain beset by racial problems, with Liverpool and London's Brixton district about to explode into riot. It was an old and tired country, adrift without its empire, like a decaying mansion whose owners try to keep up appearances by selling off the family silver.

And look at Britain now. It has the most vibrant economy in Europe, with an export boom and unemployment at 5%, less than half the levels in France and Germany. The new Labor government based its electoral appeal on its declaration of independence from the trade unions. It is the software, services, media, financial and foreign investment center of Europe. And London is the most fashionable city, with the clothing designers, pop stars, artists and even the chefs who make it the most exciting and cosmopolitan place on the other side of the Atlantic.

In its government, its economy and its mood, Britain has become a young country again. And the first symbol of the profound transformation to come was Diana's wedding--also, by coinci-dence, the first moment of British pageantry and regal splendor to be paraded before the new global TV audience. It was the start of the global cult of Diana, and we saw last week how far her aura has grown beyond the royal family, beyond Britain and beyond even the conventional orbit of celebrities. Other, conventional, celebrities do not put the flags at half-mast in Bosnia, do not get AIDS victims in California and limbless mine victims in Angola joining the grief.

The second symbol of the new Britain came the year she gave birth to Prince William. In the stunning military victory of the Falklands War, the old lion showed some very modern teeth to go with the traditional resolve and broke out of that depressing sense of decline evident since the end of World War II. Then came the decisive set-piece battle of Britain's old class war: the crushing defeat by Margaret Thatcher's government of the miners' strike, swiftly followed by the wave of privatizations of nationalized industries and the revolution in the tax system that made Britain the most pro-enterprise economy in Europe.

The making of the new Britain was Thatcher's achievement, but its symbol was Diana, who was changing and growing just as dramatically as the country. Remember that she was picked to be the future king's wife by the Queen Mother, and the essential part of her job description was that she be a virgin. The Lady Di the world first encountered in 1980 was a shy and hesitant girl, dutifully awed by the austere grandeur of the older man she was to marry.

The only clue to the way Diana would grow into the most glittering symbol of the new Britain was that most telling of attributes to any English ear: her accent. She did not speak with the cut-glass vowels of the old ruling class and of her husband. In a country long attuned to read the codes of class from the briefest of phrases, Diana sounded like "one of us," rather than "one of them." Hers was not the master tongue of the court nor of Oxford, but what we call Estuary English--the speech of London and the Thames shoreline. One of the estuary counties is Essex, and "Essex Man" became demographers' shorthand for the archetypal Thatcher voter: The upwardly mobile voter who was born into the working class but was buying his own home, going abroad for vacations, buying stocks and opening his own business.

Like most of her contemporaries, however expensively educated, Diana sounded like the new Britain, and she broke out of the old constraints of the court to have fun with her peers. She and Sarah Ferguson, the duchess of York, joined in the health-club and trendy-restaurant lifestyle of the new London. They visibly had fun in the way the royals did not, breaking out of the traditional royal bubble.

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