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Being lost for words

Brian Taylor | 11:13 UK time, Friday, 31 August 2007

Donald Dewar was seldom lost for words. But let me share with you an occasion when he seemed stumped. Ten years ago – to the day.

The world had learned of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

My first thought, let me stress, concerned the personal tragedy involved, the bereavement of her young family.

As a Scottish political journalist, however, a second thought inevitably intruded. We were just days from the referendum on Scottish self-government, due to be held on September 11.

What was to be done? Partisan campaigning appeared unthinkable. But would the ballot itself have to be postponed – and also the referendum in Wales, due a week later?

I called Donald Dewar to seek his views. As I recollect, I contacted him at roughly the same time of the morning as I am writing this. Ten years ago, precisely.

It would be glib to say he was in shock, a common experience at the time. However, with minimal time to absorb the facts, he was understandably struggling to produce a substantive response.

Frankly, he did not know what was to be done. I sympathised and ended the call.

As expected, campaigning was suspended. However, the decision was taken to continue with the vote on 11 September.

Offstage, another issue was canvassed. It may seem brutal – but some assessment was made, privately, as to the possible impact of the tragedy upon the referendum.

By that, I do not remotely mean opinion surveys or anything of the sort. Rather, there were clumsy, behind-the-hand conversations among those who were participating in the campaign, on both sides.

Would Diana’s death encourage people to cluster round the Royal Family? Would it make people, somehow, feel more “British”? Would that make them less inclined to vote Yes in the referendum?

I am not making this up. Perhaps there was a strain of collective madness loose at this particular time. Perhaps that polluted an already febrile political atmosphere in Scotland. But I heard these questions asked.


  • 1.
  • At 11:34 AM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Ben wrote:

Indeed there was madness at the time. Some of it was in Scotland but a lot more was in England with a blossoming of sentimental weeping. While no-one likes to see death on the road on anywhere, the Royal Family was (and increasingly is) a farcical side-show and Diana was an insignificant figure except for the tabloids and the glossy weeklies. The referendum, on the other hand, was of major importance to Scotland's future direction. Thus Brian is right to say that these questions were being asked but they were being asked by the level-headed people.

  • 2.
  • At 12:28 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Tony wrote:

My first thought on hearing of the death of Diana was, 'oh, so that's why they're playing this dirge on radio 2, can we have some real music now?'. But no, they carried on with the funeral tone and an occasional announcement of her death all day.

I didn't understand why, and still don't . Diana's death was no doubt a tradegy for her family and friends, but no more significant to me my death would be to Princes William and Harry.

The fact that this is still being discussed ten years later is even more mystifying.

  • 3.
  • At 12:44 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • sandymac wrote:

60% of the electorate voted in the referendum in 97, devolution was not a massive yes yes. Let us hope IF a vote on independence is to happen people take this acutely more seriously than the vote for devolution. Diana's death was tragic and the coverage over the last ten years is testament to what a significant figure she was.

  • 4.
  • At 01:04 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • JB wrote:

Although it may seem cruel at first, I think it was only natural for politicians and hacks to privately speculate on the impact of Diana's death on the referendum.

A lot of people invloved had spent years campaigning for or against devolution, to them (and hopefully to those voting, too) it was a momentous event.
In many ways, it was their job to think about the possible implications in order to figure out whether they wanted the referendum postponed or not.

I'm just glad they didn't discuss it openly. Some political operators do seem to have common sense!

  • 5.
  • At 01:08 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Jack Irvine wrote:

It's interesting to note from Alastair Campbell's Diaries that Tony Blair and his colleagues believed that the Diana hysteria did not extend to Scotland and therefore the referendum was never under a real threat of postponement. Indeed Donald Dewar appeared to stay remarkably well focussed, a feat he failed to repeat on assuming power.

  • 6.
  • At 01:10 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Angus wrote:

What I remember most is the portentious and over the top coverage of the story by the BBC. I watched the BBC coverage in increasing incredulity on the morning after.

For some reason, the BBC had morphed into "(theatrically sombre) The BBC [pause] From London".

When I got to work, everyone was rolling their eyes about how nauseatingly OTT the coverage had been.

The BBC coverage (and, I'm willing to imagine, all other channels' coverage) portrayed a mood of national grief which was totally at odds with anyone I spoke to at the time.

Tellingly, a taxi driver in Edinburgh spontaneously began a conversation with me decrying the craziness of it all, which surely indicates that disgust at the nonsense was a prevalently held position by the general public, at least in Scotland.

  • 7.
  • At 01:15 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Neil King wrote:

It is funny how the English middle classes would spend money on flowers for a recently deceased millionaire princess, however if the money spent on these flowers were instead given to one of Diana's many charities, would this not be money better spent ?
Perhaps they would agree to pay more tax to tackle unemployment, housing shortages, NHS, if the government decided to implement a 'Diana' income tax.
If only the poor and needy were rich and beautiful, then perhaps they could exact some sympathy from the British Public.

  • 8.
  • At 01:35 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Tom Murray wrote:

The response to Diana's death was totally over the top in every sense. The fact that it is still headline news today, despite the many more noteworthy and important news items and suffering around our world is a testament to the press who overhype everything.
In my opinion the response in scotland was much more measured, yes a young mother had died in tragic circumstances, yes that was terrible but shall we close our country, shall we weep publicly for days, shall we demand the royal family return to London, i think not. This was eluded to by Alastair Campbell who suggested in his book that the scots were indifferent.
I am dismayed that when 1 in 4 children in scotland live in poverty, when our young scots die in iraq every week that we must keep returning to Diana as our major news item. If she truly was the saint that our press portray she would not i suspect have wanted this.

I remember being concerned that there may be a pro-British feeling engendered by the death of Diana which may have resulted in an increased No vote in the referendum.
However, I believe that the overreaction of the media and some members of the public ended up having the opposite effect here. People in Scotland were scunnered by this fuss and felt that it was out of proportion to the real big issues of the day. Then to top it all was Elton John singing about "England's rose". I believe all of this emphasised to Scots how we are culturally different to our southern neighours - and therefore enhanced the Yes Yes vote.

  • 10.
  • At 02:15 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Liam wrote:

When Diana died the Royal Family quite rightly made the decision to keep two young boys who had just lost their mother out of the media glare at Balmoral; the cry went up in the English media "The Queen should be at home among her people", causing huge offence in Scotland not just to starry eyed royalists but to others who asked "Where do they think she is?". There was always going to be a "Yes" vote but this may have been rendered even more likely as Scots asked "Are we not supposed to be part of this United Kingdom after all?". Incidently the best article to appear at the time was by Margo McDonald.

  • 11.
  • At 02:42 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • sandymac wrote:

#7 In my experience you speak for a small minority who seem to be culturally different from most Scots anyway.

  • 12.
  • At 03:08 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Ed Martin wrote:

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Diana’s death affected the devolution referendum but only because suspension from campaigning lowered the profile which ultimately had an effect on turnout.
I remember that during that period Diana’s death was the ONLY story. Before it happened the general feeling was that she was a rather tiresome and manipulative attention seeker but the press having gone from ridiculing her on a daily basis as a bit of a fruitcake were so stricken that they fell over themselves to turn her into some kind of martyr while at the same time encouraging a collective ‘guilt’ feeling. The public grief displays in London seemed so bizarre, particularly after what had gone before. (I also remember cringing at Tony Blair's "she was the people's Princess" speech.) I doubt if in the aftermath of her death there was an increased spirit of Britishness, at least not in Scotland. We seemed a step removed from all the hullabaloo; quite keen to watch what was happening, but thinking it looked so over-the-top and un-Scottish.

  • 13.
  • At 03:53 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • steveh wrote:

I do not understand what all the fuss about, her death was a family tradgedy, the lose of a family member is something we will all sadly experience.
I do not wish to talk ill of the dead and can understand her families pain, but to watch all those people weeping over someone they never knew or met, was self indulgant and misguided.
The so called royal family are a throw back to a time now gone thank goodness.
Why does this world need celebrities, there are plenty of people in our society who are far more deserving of our simpathy and support.

  • 14.
  • At 03:54 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • DonaldL wrote:


What a strange blog from you. You seem to be scandalised that people were wondering if Ms Spencer's death would have an impact on the referendum. People who study politics know that voters vote for all sorts of crazy reasons. Brian, devolution is a process - be happy.



  • 15.
  • At 03:59 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • gordon from ayr wrote:

There was a genuine concern about the impact of the mass public mourning over Diana's death on the referendum, and a World Cup Qualifier at Pittodrie scheduled for the day of the funeral.

The game was played the following day, and we did get two positive results, a 'yes' vote and qualification for France 98!

You got the feeling that there was a deliberate attempt at emotional backmail by the 'national' media to make people feel guilty if they were not wearing their grief for Diana on their sleeve, in much the same way as George W Bush said after 9/11, 'if you're not with us you're against us'.

It was Malcolm Muggeridge who first said the monarchy had become a soap opera. What would he have made of it today? An expensive irrelevant reality show?

  • 16.
  • At 04:05 PM on 31 Aug 2007,
  • Scotsman wrote:

I do remember they postponed Scotland's game v Belarus from the day of the funeral to a Sunday. That certainly got my back up!

My grandmother was buried a few days earlier- but there were no crowds weeping for her. It was hard not to feel alienated by all the nonsense.

I was nervous about the referendum, but it was clear the Scots were going to vote yes, and had been for many years.

  • 17.
  • At 09:29 AM on 01 Sep 2007,
  • louise wrote:

I agree with ed martin that the profile was lowered and that this may have stopped some people from voting but i dont think that it had any effect on peoples notion of which nationality they were. I dont remember thinking at the time "oh diana has died now im a brit. I do remember being angry that the royal family were demanded to be returned to england their home. As far as i was aware the queen was home considering she was the queen of scotland as well. I am not a royalist by any means but I think the queen does a lot of good for the country in that a lot of tourists come to see things about the royal family so i respect her for that if nothing else. However that made me think maybe she does not regard the scottish people as her people. Anyway my point is the royals would still be the royal family of scotland even with independence because it is the act of union we wish to set aside and not the union of the crowns.

  • 18.
  • At 09:46 AM on 01 Sep 2007,
  • Dewi wrote:

I remember in Wales being deeply concerned on the effect on the referendum. The momentum of the campaign just seemed to stop.

I remember being saddened by the death of this beautiful young woman,but I was ooutraged,and remain so,by the media coverage.It seems that the Princess still sells newspapers and television programmes ten years on.
As for media demands that the Queen should be with her 'people' in London and not safely tucked away with her grieving grandchildren in Balmoral,well!!!!

  • 20.
  • At 01:32 AM on 02 Sep 2007,
  • Alexander Mitchell wrote:

I was reviewing the articles on Princess Diana. Yes, I
recall like it was yesterday in regards to her death.
In addition, I remember random TV articles of Princess Diana just before and after her Marriage to Prince
Charles and of course, her death.. Frankly, I definitely feel that the Paparazzi and British Press are partially to blame for the the sad life and death of the Princess. Many of the videos I saw on TV showed the disrespect as well as cruelty that the Princess had to endure. One solution: the British Government should initiate laws to regulate the press. This matter of press regulation should apply not only to the protection British Royalty against slander and such, but to the British Public as well. The Paparazzi and British Press should definitely
be held accountable for the damage they have created.

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