When Buckingham Palace announced at midday on Friday 9 April that His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, had died at Windsor Castle, tributes from around the globe celebrated a life supremely well lived, mourned the passing of the longest-serving monarchical consort in British history and marked the closing of a distinct chapter of our national story.
Whilst the unkind and the manifestly unpleasant inevitably took to Twitter to lament that the Duke had passed away peacefully – one earning 16,500 'likes' for their belief that he 'deserved so much more (pain)' – the overwhelming majority of both public and official tributes have praised the Duke's longevity, his devotion to duty as well as the Queen and his eight decades of public service since joining the Royal Navy in 1939.
Such an occasion inevitably invites a plethora of platitudes and well-worn chestnuts, particularly given the fact that few will be unfamiliar with the people, institutions, accomplishments and challenges that coloured the Duke of Edinburgh's life. As the Queen's husband and consort, this initially reluctant 'liege man of life and limb' – who, as a boy exiled from his native Corfu, once introduced himself as 'Philip of Greece' – became an immovable component of Britain's public life. Whilst only those well into their 80s will have even the faintest memories of a time before the-then Princess Elizabeth married the Duke, one of the more poignant cartoons circulating last weekend, penned by the Evening Standard's
Christian Adams, showed the Queen standing alone, with the Duke's shadow next to and towering over her own.
Unsurprisingly, most obituarists have stressed the Duke's diligence, enterprising spirit and personal fortitude as well as his many and diverse charitable endeavours accumulated during a lifetime spent two paces behind his wife. The BBC's wall-to-wall coverage chose to present the Duke as a man ahead of his time – an impressively well-read moderniser, enthusiastic about conservation, interested in science, religion and emerging technologies, and devoted to widening youthful horizons. For the First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin, the now-deceased Lord High Admiral was an 'indomitable spirit' renowned for his 'steadfastness and unshakeable sense of duty'.
Perhaps typically, President Joe Biden cornered the market for home-spun tributes when he asserted that the Duke was 'a heck of a guy', with the 78-year-old Pennsylvanian (himself a young whippersnapper compared to Prince Philip) adding that he admires 'the devil out of' his energy and longevity.
As Helen Lewis noted in The Atlantic
, the death of the world's self-proclaimed 'most experienced plaque-unveiler' almost inevitably invites comparisons 'between the world he was born into and the one he has left behind'. Born shortly after the conclusion of the First World War and just four years after the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha transmogrified into 'the Windsors', the Duke of Edinburgh (and, by extension, the Queen) increasingly appear to be the remainders of a bygone age.
Jeremy Paxman suggested at the turn of the millennium that today's Britain is without the 'shared endeavour or suffering' that characterised British life after the Second World War (although the COVID-19 pandemic may have changed that), service in the armed forces has become a 'rarity' and wartime austerity is now a 'distant memory'. Equally distinct, the BBC's gruff Grand Inquisitor reckoned, is the fact that 'only a small [and ever-decreasing] minority' continue to subscribe to 'old pieties about not spending money on personal enjoyment or adornment'.
Whilst many of my generation – the so-called 'Zoomers' of Generation Z – understandably disapprove of both the institution that the Duke of Edinburgh served and of some of his less-than-saintly personal qualities, he has been an ever-present figure in our lives, elderly and at times frail, of roughly comparable age to grandparents or possibly even great-grandparents, and a living embodiment of that now-passing era that Paxman contrasted with our own.
Despite Prince Philip's request for minimal fuss and an understated military funeral (to be held on Saturday 17 April), it is to be expected that such a major royal death and the passing of a sui generis figure would be the subject of such fervent attention. With the last important royal death occurring nearly 20 years ago when the Queen Mother died in March 2002, the Duke of Edinburgh's death means that we have now broken the seal on such occurrences and must begin to contemplate the future and existence of the Royal Family without both the Duke and the Queen.
In some quarters, the conversation has shifted from marking the Duke's demise to debating how the country could 'honour' him. So far, suspect suggestions include building a new Royal Yacht to be named after him as well as erecting an effigy on the fourth and vacant plinth in Trafalgar Square. Despite the mass of sometimes inconsequential coverage and a flood of tributes and remembrances, there is a persuasive case to be made that the Duke was a man out of step with modern Britain.
As Ed West noted in Unherd
, the Duke 'epitomised a certain ironically-but-not-ironically loveable member of the older generation' who had fought in the war, was often rude to foreigners, liked to ride, sail and shoot, and was 'unsentimental and uncompassionate almost to a comic degree… at a time when a new-found emotional incontinence' spread across the country. The Guardian
rightly highlighted that the Duke's 'readiness to call a spade a bloody shovel' and his ability to be 'direct, rude and offensive… and not greatly care if he caused upset' did little to endear him to 'liberal opinion' in Britain.
Despite this, I would suggest that a healthier and more appropriate nod to the Duke's life and work would be for those in public life to attempt to follow his example. If not his much quoted 'one-liners' (delete and insert 'gaffes' or 'racist epithets' as you will) – which have been the subject of intense debate on Twitter – then his military-like tendency to play a straight bat and to try his utmost to do his best. As Nicholas Soames told Times Radio on Friday 9 April, the best advice that Her Majesty the Queen's husband gave Sir Winston Churchill's grandson was to simply 'stop whining and just get on with it'.
Whilst one can never really take the measure of someone so senior in public life without having met them, my lasting impression of the Duke is of someone upstanding, energetic and enthusiastic, possessing a deep and sincere sense of duty, refined and always immaculately turned-out. Contrast that with the Prime Minister du jour who managed to drag himself into a dark suit for the occasion but still looked like a man who had styled his hair with the static from a balloon. As Rory Bremner observed, whilst it might have been more respectful for the Prime Minister to run a brush through his hair before addressing the nation, we should be grateful that 'his trousers weren't at half-mast'.
In 2021, Britain has a desperate shortage of both experience and gravitas in its politics and public life. In the House of Commons, less than half of the current cohort have sat for more than six years and there are only four MPs on the backbenches who have held one of the Great Offices of State – and only one of those, Theresa May, held her post for more than 15 months. Whilst life inside 'the Firm' undoubtedly brings both wealth and privilege, royal life is centred around the notion that its incumbents must fulfil their obligation to both the country and its people – an indicative contrast may be with the most recent seedy chapter in the highly lucrative revolving door between politics and big business, this time involving the former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
Whilst one can overdo the notion that the majority of our current crop of politicians are bounders and chancers or just plain incompetent, I would agree with Barack Obama that the lasting lesson of the Duke of Edinburgh's life and 'extraordinary example' will be that 'true partnership' – and I would add, national life – 'has room for both ambition and selflessness – all in service of something greater'.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh. He is currently writing a history of the 1979 referendum on the creation of a Scottish Assembly