Andrew Roberts

The monarchy will survive Diana’s death (1997)

Today marks 25 years since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Andrew Roberts wrote The Spectator’s cover story that week, republished below and available at our digitised archive.

The story that ended so horribly in that functional concrete Parisian tunnel early on Sunday had begun with a television show in 1969, when the victim was seven years old. In contradiction of Walter Bagehot’s advice, daylight was let in on the magic of the monarchy. Before 1969, all had been deliberately obscure.

Who now remembers Commander Colville? For over two decades, Commander Richard Colville DSC was press secretary, first to George VI and then to the present Queen. In Ben Pimlott’s recent biography of her, he is described as an ‘unbending ex-naval officer’ whom journalists nicknamed The Abominable No-Man for his consistent refusals of royal access, and his ‘belief that any titbit of above or below stairs royal gossip was inherently interesting’, and thus had to be protected from a press corps which ‘he treated with a combination of distrust and lordly contempt’. Colville felt, along with the King and his private secretary, Sir Alan Lascelles, that the Palace owed the press nothing, and he ran what the BBC complained was ‘an authoritarian regime’.

Even the extravagantly royalist Cecil Beaton found the Commander ‘ashen-faced and like the wicked uncle in a pantomime… who deals so sternly with all of us who are in any way connected with the press’. It was Colville’s retirement in 1968 that, in Pimlott’s words, ‘precipitated a revolution in the relations between monarchy and the press’. His successor, the Australian William Heseltine, ‘recognised a need to sell royalty to the public’. This chimed in perfectly with the unbuttoning spirit of the late Sixties, Lord Mountbatten’s messianic belief in the power of public relations and the somewhat paranoiac view of Prince Philip, as vouchsafed to the Queen’s private secretary, Lord Charteris, that in order to survive the royal family ‘are fighting an election campaign every day of the week’.

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