Twenty years ago this week, Britain and the world lost one of the seminal figures - at least in terms of public affection - of the millennial era.

What impact has this most unexpected death had on the British mindset and social fabric?

Flowers for Princess Diana

IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO: Flowers and tributes left outside Kensington Palace Gates in London following news of Princess Diana's death in Paris. PICTURE: Maxwell Hamilton/CC BY 2.0

 

"Since the passing of Princess Diana we've become both less trusting of major public institutions, including the monarchy, and, on a perhaps more positive note, less inclined to mistake familiarity with intimacy."

Since the passing of Princess Diana we've become both less trusting of major public institutions, including the monarchy, and, on a perhaps more positive note, less inclined to mistake familiarity with intimacy.  

In some quarters, the reaction to the princess's death was akin to the way we might react to the sudden passing of a family member or a very close friend. People spoke in very personal terms about the princess, though we really only knew her through the lens of her media image and, in some cases, the manipulation of that image.  

Only a very small coterie knew her well. Though she championed the causes of common people, few if any of them would have been part of her inner circle. Throughout her life she remained a part of a cohort that is largely cut of from the everyday struggles of the working and middle classes.

Over the past 20 years, we've come to a more nuanced view of her personality and her life. Many, if not most of us, still rightly admire her compassionate work, her devotion to her sons and her attempts to humanise the royal family and our perceptions of it.  

With the benefit of distance and hindsight we have become a little more aware of the personal struggles she faced, both emotionally and psychologically.  We can't possibly know all the details and most wouldn't want to, but these days we're perhaps less inclined to mistake a sense of arms length familiarity with real intimacy when it comes to people in the public eye.  

We are a more healthy society for it. 

On the flip side of the coin, over the past two decades - and partly because of Diana's passing - we've become a less trusting society when it comes to public institutions.  

One of the most immediate effects of her death was an outpouring of unusually strong and at times virulent outpouring of public feeling against the royal family.  

Since then we've become less trusting on other fronts too. This is borne out by scientific studies. The Edelman Communications Group annually surveys people in more than 20 nations to learn their levels of trust when it comes to public institutions such as government, media, business and so on.

Edelman's 2017 study records something of a crisis of trust.  Governments, on average, are trusted by only 41 per cent of the populations in the nations surveyed, which include thge UK. Media is trusted by just 43 per cent.  

Princess Diana's death coincided with - and I think contributed to - the beginning of this downward trust cycle, at least here in the UK. More recently, events such as the Brexit decision - and people's reactions to it - have essentially been expressions of that same phenomenon.

"In the end, the overwhelming reaction of the public to princess Diana's untimely death was more than a response to the passing of a notable and much loved individual.  It was also a collective moment of confrontation with our own mortality."

In the end, the overwhelming reaction of the public to princess Diana's untimely death was more than a response to the passing of a notable and much loved individual.  It was also a collective moment of confrontation with our own mortality.  

Ours is a culture which is largely divorced, at least on a week-to-week basis, from the reality of death.  

I live in a small village in south-central England which has at its original centre a church. The church is surrounded on three sides by a burial ground.  There was a time in the history of our village when people would have walked past or even through that graveyard on a daily basis.  

It served them as a reminder that life is short; that we are all part of a continuum rather than the centrepiece of history.  

That someone as young, vibrant and well-known as Princess Di could have passed away in such a dramatic and sudden way makes us collectively catch your breath and, perhaps for the first time in a while, confront death as a culture.  

This moment 20 years ago was a deeply shocking one for so many but it also possibly had the effect of making us reflect on the brevity and therefore value of life and the values by which we live.

Mal Fletcher 2016

Mal Fletcher is a social futurist, social commentator and speaker and the chairman of 2020Plus, a London-based think tank. He has researched global social trends for more than 25 years and speaks to civic leaders worldwide about issues relating to socio-cultural ethics & values, PESTLE Analysis, civic leadership, emerging and future technologies, social media, generational change and innovation. First published at 2020Plus.net. Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2017.