This month marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana, and the nation will be marking it respectfully by delving into the last few vestiges of her private life which haven’t already been made public by her butler or her boyfriend’s dad. Diana: In Her Own Words, a Channel 4 documentary which will play tape recordings of the former Princess of Wales talking about her private life and her struggles with the royal family, has caused enough predictable controversy already – but there’s something very compelling about it.
Rather than the flowers and the golden statue and the saccharine platitudes about losing a philanthropic figure so young, this tribute actually acknowledges the poor woman as a human being. It provides a space where she is relatively uncensored, where we hear her say that she was “absolutely traumatised” when Prince Charles replied to a reporter asking “Are you in love?” at the announcement of their engagement with: “Whatever ‘in love’ means.” We hear of Camilla Parker-Bowles: “I remember saying to my husband, you know, ‘Why, why is this lady around?’ And he said, ‘Well I refuse to be the only Prince of Wales who never had a mistress.’” And we hear her say that she confided in the Queen about her loveless marriage, “I said, ‘I’m coming to you. What do I do?’ And she said, ‘I don’t know what you should do, Charles is hopeless.’ And that was it. That was help.”
Then there are the truly heartrending ones, which make even a cynical republican like me feel sad: “There’s just nobody to physically scream at. Or someone to put their arms around me – just listen when I cry. I can’t bear people saying it can’t be as bad as that, or we understand – nobody understands unless you’re the individual concerned.” And then, of her bulimia: “I said I could’ve gone to alcohol which would have been obvious. I could’ve been anorexic which should be even more obvious. I decided to do the more discreet thing which ultimately wasn’t discreet but I chose to hurt myself instead of hurting all of you.”
Anyone who supports the idea of the continuance of the royal family in Britain should read those final two excerpts particularly carefully. Because the truth about royalty isn’t just that it perpetuates gross inequality, and encourages outdated customs, and hands political leverage to people who haven’t earned it, and leads to a bizarre cultural phenomenon wherein people on miniscule amounts of benefits are called “scroungers” while royals in receipt of millions are praised as “hardworking representatives”. The truth is that, above all of those macro effects, on an individual level it is downright cruel.
If you think that the royal family’s existence is unthreatening, and you derive a bit of nostalgic, patriotic pleasure out of its existence, and you really buy into the myth that they bring in more money than they take out, then you should at least take the time to consider what the people inside it actually say about it. Think about what Prince Harry meant when he said earlier this year that “no one in the royal family wants to be king or queen”. Think about him pleading with the media to leave his partner Meghan Markle alone. Think about his description of his mother’s funeral, which he attended when he was just 12 years old: “My mother had just died, and I had to walk a long way behind her coffin, surrounded by thousands of people watching me while millions more did on television. I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances.”
Abolishing the monarchy is something we need to do, not for our own sakes but for theirs. A child is not supposed to be treated like a zoo animal days after the death of his mother. A 19-year-old woman is not supposed to cower in a palace, suffering silently from mental illness, quietly becoming more and more self-destructive in order to keep up appearances and prevent herself from causing too much trouble for the most important family in the land. Boyfriends, girlfriends and close friends shouldn’t have to pay the price of life-destroying media intrusion just to be close to the people they love.
It was too late for Diana; that much is obvious. And it’s too late to prevent the sharing of the tapes, despite many connected to the royals protesting that they should be “kept private”. But this should be the final invasion of privacy, the last awful show of what it really means to be royal before we all come to a mature and adult acceptance of the end of the monarchy. It isn’t right or fair to live in a society where real people are treated that way because of an accident of birth. They don’t deserve the advantages, and, most importantly, they don’t deserve the downfalls.