1990s >> 1997 >> no-1118-october-1997

The Greasy Pole: Now where were we?

Say what you like about Tony Blair but nobody can accuse him of missing a trick when it comes to persuading the voting public that he is the most competent and caring Prime Minister in the history of this country. Despite all his other worries—like the devolution campaigns and the sleaze in the Scottish Labour Party—Blair was quick to seize the opportunity offered by the astonishing hysteria and grief over the death of Princess Diana. On issues like the royal family the working class seem to have locked themselves up in a prison of self-delusion: Blair saw there was a lot to be gained by talking to them through the cell door, telling them he understood how they felt and would do something about it. So he pushed for a funeral the size of which enabled millions of people to participate—there in person or watching it on TV. So successful was this for Blair that William Hague, whose position as leader of the Conservative Party is almost as peculiar as all that emotion over the dead princess, protested that this was making political capital over a royal event.

Of course Hague had a point, even if it was not the one he thought he was making, because the big parties agreed to suspend all political activities until after the funeral—as if to carry on as usual would be unseemly when the nation was absorbed in leaving flowers in public places, signing books of condolence and so on. But there are some questions to be asked about that truce, one of them being why politicians should regard their profession of getting people to vote for empty promises to control capitalism to everyone’s benefit as being so disreputable that it should not be allowed to intrude on public grief. This brings us to another question about the nature of politics, its uses and its effect and whether the death of a princess can be separated from it.

Princess Diana stood out from the rest of the human race because she was so caring, so compassionate. We know this is true because so many people told us so, among them the princess herself. “Nothing gives me greater happiness.” she told Le Monde a few days before she died, “than helping the most vulnerable members of society. If anyone in distress calls me I will run to help no matter what.” Nobody knows whether she ran to Dodi Al Fayed because she thought he was vulnerable or whether that was why. on the evening of the fatal accident, she helped him through the distress of dinner at the Paris Ritz.

But wasn’t she the princess who warned about the suffering of the homeless? Who took Prince William to see the vagrants who spend their days hanging around Kings Cross station—to show him that there is another life outside Buckingham Palace, Sandringham, Balmoral, Eton? The victims of this kind of patronising did not seem to mind. Among the first of the overnight campers to get a good view of the funeral was a 49-year-old hostel resident from Whitechapel who told the Guardian, “Princess Diana helped the homeless, and I’m homeless myself. She put herself out for so many people. I’d have loved to have met her.” After the funeral, still homeless, still loyal, still deluded, he went back to his hostel. There is no record of whether Prince William was impressed by his visit to Kings Cross, whether he had ever wondered about how all those faded, malnourished people he had noticed in their cramped-up, unhealthy abodes survived and whether any of them cracked up under the strain of trying to get by as members of the working class.

Rich people
There is no record, either, of what the prince thought when his mother told a Labour MP, a few months ago. that “Rich people just want more and more. It makes me sick.” From his room at Eton, did Prince William worry whether Diana was so caught up in the media fantasies about her that she was going to give it all away and begin looking for a real job? There was an awful lot to give, if this woman who was made sick by rich people ever wanted to dispose of it. A fortune estimated at £40 million, made up partly from a £17 million divorce settlement and what she inherited from her father. Jewellery worth over £16 million. A private collection worth £1.5 million and a wardrobe—over 500 dresses, 150 evening gowns—priced at more than £3 million. Clearly she was a rich woman: was she also one who wanted more and more? She recently told an enquiring Lord that her “… investment portfolio from the divorce settlement is doing very well, thank you.”

In fact that remark was made while she was in Bosnia, where she busily publicised the campaign to ban land mines. This was another basis for the image of her as a caring woman, waking up the world to the horrors of a ghastly weapon of war. Well nobody is going to argue in favour of land mines—there are said to be 110 million buried somewhere or other in the world—but they are not the only weapons. There are no friendly armaments, guaranteed to kill people in a way which a compassionate princess would approve of. Diana could apparently see no reason to question why capitalism produces wars—she was colonel-in-chief of the Welsh Guards, who were caught in a terrible incident in the Falklands—nor why this had led to monstrosities like nuclear bombs, which she seemed to find no difficulty in accepting. It was almost as if she reasoned, in her caring way. that wiping out a few million people in a minute or two is OK but blowing off people’s feet with land mines is going to far.

Maybe Diana was sincere about her campaigns and her charities: what is clear is that she was confused. Just like, in fact, her subjects—all those people who do all the useful work in this society but are denied the full fruits of their labour yet are grateful when someone they are taught to regard as superior to them condescends to be charitable towards them. While the media were spewing out their nonsense about the princess an official report (Health Inequalities) told us that for the first time since Queen Victoria was on the throne, the life expectancy of poorer people has stopped rising and in some cases has actually fallen. This report did not dominate the newspapers, there was no day-long TV coverage of it. It was about the lives and the deaths of people who are not important in capitalist society so it was not news.

And that is the political issue—it is what politics should be all about. The existence of a society of two classes, in one of which there are people as rich as Princess Diana and in the other the poor, the sick, the homeless, is not just the biggest political issue—it is the only one.