6 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 7

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We were often told, during the early Thatcher years, that we were two nations. Two nations, economically, that is. Since the early hours of Sunday, however, it looks as if we might be two nations emotionally.

One nation, it seems, is convulsed with a grief one of whose manifestations is resent- ment against the House of Windsor in gen- eral and Prince Charles in particular, and rage against 'the establishment which excluded her'. The other nation, perhaps smaller and certainly keeping quiet at the moment — indeed hardly daring to speak its true feelings — grieves too. But it grieves solely for a beautiful young woman whose life had seen much unhappiness and who met a hideous death perhaps as a result of her fatal attraction for, in more ways than one, the fast set. The second nation does not think this tragedy tells us anything about the morality of deploying land-mines, about Aids treatment or about whether we should hug our children more.

For about three days, the first nation held sway. But by the middle of the week there were signs that the second nation was asserting itself, and perhaps becoming larg- er. Journalists on national newspapers pri- vately pointed out that readers were start- ing to write in and telephone, asking whether it wasn't all getting out of hand, or as some put it, 'Have you all gone mad?' Another complaint was that the media had exploited her — and much of it had adversely criticised her — in life, and now was canonising her in death.

Simon Jenkins, on Wednesday, was the first to note this changing, or different, mood, in a Times column which was gener- ally sympathetic to the first nation. He deserves praise for his pluck in coming out with it at such a time: 'Many to whom I have spoken, and thousands who tele- phoned the BBC, found the response exces- sive. They felt they were being corralled by the media into a certain sort of grief. Many were distressed to be denied music for much of the day on Radio Three, music which most people find consoling and which Classic FM did offer. Those who control the conduits of state sadness can easily become heady on the project. They nationalise grief and make it totalitarian. In doing so, they risk diluting it.' An important phrase there was 'a certain kind of grief. It is not grief after such a tragedy which is questionable, it is the form of some of the grieving. The Princess's death is being exploited by people who are making a political or ideological point. Mil- itant feminists are using it to make a point against what they would have us believe is still a patriarchal society in which women are forced to put up with unsatisfactory husbands. Opponents of Scottish devolu- tion are using it to show that more Scots will now think of themselves as part of a United Kingdom. More plausibly, militants for devolution are using it to emphasise that the Princess was a fellow rebel against the English-controlled House of Windsor.

At the start of the week, there were signs that the government was using it to identify the Princess with the open, refreshing, unstuffy, caring world into which Mr Blair would have us believe he is leading us. Only the stiffest of upper lips would have object- ed to the Prime Minister's first statement on the death, and his coining the phrase `The People's Princess'. But then the dis- tinct impression emerged that Downing Street was trying to make it look as if it was in charge of the funeral. The New Labour spin doctorate was not averse to it being thought that Mr Blair was fighting against the Establishment for a 'people's funeral'. There is no doubt that, rightly, all this annoyed Buckingham Palace. The govern- ment's responsibilities are confined to such matters as which foreign dignitaries should be invited, since that has diplomatic impli- cations. Otherwise the funeral is the responsibility of the Lord Chamberlain.

As always, the royal family and Bucking- ham Palace have been chided for merely responding to the public mood, or for not capturing it. Some of this chiding has been justified. It was indeed grim that there seemed to be no prayers specifically for the Princess at the Sunday morning service which the royal family attended only hours after the accident. But the royal family, unlike a modern political party or govern- ment, cannot be a constant public relations exercise. As Andrew Roberts argues in our cover story, the royal family's concession to PR values has helped bring about much of its troubles. Parties and governments live for the moment. Their concern is the immediate problem or opportunity. The monarchy is concerned with the exact opposite: continuity. It cannot be dictated to by the mood of the hour, no matter how sad, otherwise that mood will dictate its public statements and even the succession. The monarchy would be at the mercy of popular praise or blame and be no different from the transient politicians who bid for popular favour.

This weekend, we should be content to grieve for the loss of an irreplaceable young woman who, however controversial she was at home — and we must not forget that she was controversial — brought credit and lustre to our country wherever she went abroad. That should be grief enough.