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Exits of 'Iron Lady,' 'Velvet Princess' End Era

Margaret Thatcher
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is shown in 1996. (AP)

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 5, 1997; Page A29

LONDON, Sept. 4 — The outpouring of sentiment over the death of Princess Diana has evolved rapidly from a collective expression of grief into a political moment that, along with last spring's Labor Party electoral landslide, is helping to define the future of Great Britain.

For much of the past 20 years, two charismatic women — Diana and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher — defined the face of Britain for much of the world. The "Iron Lady" and the velvet princess had little in common — one a politician, the other a regal celebrity — and performed on different stages. Now that both are off the stage, it is clear not only how profoundly each affected the Britain that prepares for the 21st century but also how much is left to be done.

It will fall to others — most notably Prime Minister Tony Blair — to chart the country's future course, but the events of 1997 suggest that the British people are, in the analysis of writer Martin Jacques, pushing for political and cultural change to go along with the economic transformation delivered by Thatcher.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair
British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks of his sadness after the death of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed. (Reuters)

Blair's effort to chart the future will begin with elements of Thatcher's free-market impulses and a style imitative of Diana's embodiment of Britain as "a young country," as Blair called it during his campaign. But over time, given the strong dose of constitutional reforms the prime minister has set in motion, his more open embrace of Europe and the demands for modernity in the monarchy apparent this week, the changes may be even more significant.

Whatever else emerges from this week's remarkable show of national spirit, there now is little doubt that this year marks the closing of an era in British history. The combination of the Labor Party's huge victory last May, which swept the Tories out of power after 18 years, and the impact of Diana's death represent the intermingling of political and cultural change that are giving voice to a new Britain.

Both events were a surprise, even to experts. Everyone predicted Blair would become prime minister, but few anticipated the enormity of his victory, which left Labor with the biggest majority in Parliament in more than a century. Everyone knew that the death of Diana in an automobile accident early Sunday would shake people here, but no one expected the scale of the outpouring, which has become so powerful that the royal family has been forced to alter precedent in an effort to catch up with the public mood.

Jacques said the two upheavals in just four months help to close a gap between the dominant values of the establishment culture of the past and the demands of a public very much asking for change.

"The fundamental cultural crisis in Britain has been the chasm between the institutions of government — Westminster, Whitehall, the judiciary, Buckingham Palace — and their dominant culture, which essentially was bound by tradition, habit, formality and, on the other hand, the new culture of people, which was given birth to in the 1960s and that now encompasses most people," he said.

First with Blair's election, and even more dramatically through Diana's death, he said, the public is attempting to close that gap.

Kenneth R. Minogue, professor emeritus at the University of London, called the twin upheavals an expression of "the liquefaction of British society" that has injected an element of instability into what has been one of the most stable democratic societies in the world. As significant as Blair's election was in defining this new mood, the impact of Diana's death "is more significant," he said, because it is such a powerful and unpredictable expression of sentiment for change.

Every era is defined in part by the previous, which is why Blair and the new Britain begin with a grounding in the changes wrought by Thatcher and the Tories during their long run in power.

Most notably those changes included her efforts to radically alter the economic structure of the country by moving away from the nationalized industries toward the kind of conservative, free-market policies she championed along with her friend, then-President Ronald Reagan. Thatcher also reduced the power of the once-dominant trade unions and shifted power away from local government toward the central government.

Blair won his election in part by promising not to change much of what Thatcher did, particularly on the economic front. There is no move on his part to renationalize major industries, nor is he likely to do much to restore the power of the trade unions. In fact, his election was assured in large part by his pledge not to tamper with those changes. Only on the issue of giving local government more power is Blair moving in a sharply different direction than Thatcher.

Thatcher and the Tories' 18 years in power left Britain a more middle-class nation, according to pollster Robert Worcester. His surveys over the years chart the shift dramatically: When Thatcher first took office, only one-third of adults in the country were in the middle class. By the time of Blair's election, nearly half were classified as middle class.

"The point about this election is that it [was] the perpetuation of Thatcherism by another party," said Madsen Pirie, president of the Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think tank based in London. "We regard this new Labor government as a free-market government, and some of the policies it has implemented go farther than even the Conservatives went."

Among those were the decision to give the Bank of England the power to set interest rates, much as the Federal Reserve does in the United States, and Blair's determination to reform the welfare system, something the Conservatives did not do. In that way, he is following the same path as President Clinton, attempting to outflank the conservatives on the right on an issue normally harmful to a left-leaning party.

Diana's changes may be equally significant, judging from the week's events. Although she was not a political figure, her style and personality may have longer-lasting effects on the royal family of the future. Diana defined royalty in new and open ways. She symbolized the freshness and warmth of a new Britain, and the anger expressed toward the royal family this week underscores the fact that many people seem to prefer her regal style to that of Queen Elizabeth II or Diana's former husband, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne.

It was partly Thatcher's departure as prime minister in 1990 and public disenchantment with the monarchy that allowed Diana to emerge, particularly after her divorce and separation, as a force within British society. "The departure of both Thatcher and Diana does leave a huge vacuum," said Anthony Sampson, author of several books on Britain.

Blair now stands as the one person able to fill that vacuum, and his visibility this week — in contrast to the isolation of the royal family — suggests that, at a minimum, he is in touch with the public mood. In that sense he may attempt to capture some of the style — the Americanization of Britain — that Diana's celebrity also brought to the country.

But even people close to Blair argue that this is not a role any politician can easily play. Diana "was the new Britain," one Blair adviser said. "There is not a politician who can fill that role. From that point of view, it's a great loss."

Where the sentiments that expressed themselves in both the May election and this week's mourning over Diana may come together, several analysts said, is in the constitutional changes Blair is pushing.

Next week, the people of Scotland will decide whether to create their first parliament in 300 years. A week later, Welsh voters will be given the opportunity to create their own assembly. Peace talks in Northern Ireland, long stalemated, will begin in 10 days with Sinn Fein, the legal political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, at the table. All could result in the dispersal of power away from the central government.

Blair also appears likely to push Britain toward Europe in a way Thatcher and the Conservatives, who were divided on the issue, would not have done. The greater the integration, the more Britain may have to give up some of its sovereignty.

Pollster Worcester predicts that in a decade, the face of Britain could be altered dramatically. "I've said we will look back on 1997 and you won't even be able to recognize this country," he said.

Others doubt the changes will be so dramatic. "Britain might be buried a couple of years after Diana, but it won't be because of Diana," said Alan Sked of the London School of Economics. But he added, "I don't think that's going to happen."

How much all this will affect the monarchy is difficult to assess. The monarchy was in bad shape at an earlier point in this century, after the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936 and Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of the Nazis in 1939. Its standing was restored by a powerfully symbolic act taken by the current queen's mother and father, who refused to leave Buckingham Palace during the Blitz in World War II.

So far no such gesture has been forthcoming from the current royal family, but the events of this week seem to confirm the view that members of the family have more potential than mere politicians to dramatically change the face of Britain.

Sked said Charles and Diana's older son, Prince William, might be the savior. "It will be the whole Diana myth," he said of William's eventual elevation to the throne. "He'll be Prince Charming to the entire world."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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