The Guardian Weekly

What Prince Philip meant to modern Britain

- By Tim Adams

The first mention of Prince Philip in the Observer came with the announceme­nt of his engagement to the future queen on 13 July, 1947. It is a measure of the privacy the royals then enjoyed that no gossip or rumour of their years of courtship had been reported.

The editorial gave spontaneou­s approval to the match, suggesting it required “no cheering to order”. There was something in it for everybody. “For the friends of tradition it offers a bridegroom of royal blood,” it was suggested; for “the friends of innovation, a British citizen without title”. Here was a leading man whom all audiences might enjoy. “To the popular fancy he may be the gallant mariner of romance; to his companions Lt Philip Mountbatte­n is known as the most active and able naval

officer.” That piece was pointedly set alongside another leading article which appraised the desperate state of the country as it struggled to emerge from the war: “A widespread impression has prevailed that a ‘return to normality’ is under way,” that piece noted. “But what is ‘normality’ now for Britain? Were prewar conditions really ‘normal’ or is that merely a comfortabl­e assumption?”

The conjunctio­n of these articles emphasised a sense that Philip never lost: he had been the right man at the right time. Broken by war, and realising the loss of empire, Britain in 1947, the Observer noted, needed to rediscover its “spirit of resourcefu­lness” and here in the next column was a youthful figure who appeared to embody that spirit. Unlike the predictabl­e Etonian suitors the Queen’s mother had lined up for her elder daughter, this former head boy of “a remote Scottish school that provided for the local coastguard and fire service” had jumped to the front of the queue by force of character. He was a war hero mentioned in dispatches for his service on HMS Valiant and both a prince and a pauper. Philip Mountbatte­n could trace a lineage to several royal households, but he needed a whipround from schoolmate­s to buy a set of cufflinks for his first visit to the palace. Since the age of nine (when his mother had been confined to a sanatorium), he had been stateless and homeless.

Better still, and surely the only real prerequisi­te for 73 years of marriage, there was undeniable passion at the outset. The smitten princess told her father, King George VI, that this was the only man she could ever love. Soon after their wedding, Philip wrote to his mother-in-law that “Lilibet is the only ‘thing’ in this world which is absolutely real to me. My ambition,” he declared, “is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good.”

There is no doubt Philip knew what he might be in for, and that a welder’s force might well be required. But if the measure of monarchy is not progress but survival, you’d have to say the duke fulfilled that vow. You imagine that he would have been quietly gratified that three-quarters of a century on from that declaratio­n, the fact of his death would still be marked by the BBC clearing its schedules for tributes as well as gruffly amused that the national broadcaste­r simultaneo­usly set up a page on its website asking viewers to complain if the sheer volume of its coverage might be a bit much.

In the course of those looped tributes it has been a surprise to hear Philip talking in sentences and paragraphs, in the few interviews that he gave. His preferred mode of public discourse has always seemed the clipped one-liner. In this, as in everything else, you might generously have detected a sense of duty; he said the wrong thing so the monarch never had to. In an interview for Scottish TV, he once argued: “The idea that you don’t do anything on the off-chance you might be criticised means you’d end up living like a cabbage and it’s pointless. You’ve got to stick up for something you believe in.”

The things that he believed in were a set of values that survived with him from his days at Gordonstou­n. As well as some of the archaic attitudes of empire, they had to do with gallows humour and brave faces and the dying arts of duty and stickabili­ty.

It was, as has been widely argued, true the duke was responsibl­e, for better and worse, for the media’s obsession with the royals. It was he who insisted the BBC should be allowed to observe life behind the gated world of the palace for its 1969 documentar­y Royal Family. The film “humanised” the royals, but it also allowed the press to subsequent­ly

Prince William summed up his grandfathe­r as any grandfathe­r would wish: ‘Legend’

occupy that lucrative space between myth and reality, spinning royal fairy tales and gleefully trashing them.

Having initiated that game with the mass media, Philip stubbornly refused to play it. He never signed autographs, allergic to any sense of the c-word the Windsors most fear: celebrity. By instinct and temperamen­t he understood a royal family that seemed to enjoy the trappings of fame and privilege could never survive in the modern world. In its tribute the New York Times noted approvingl­y that “when the telephone rang, he answered it himself ”. Other appreciati­ons have noted he mixed his own gin and tonics and sometimes fried his own eggs. In all of this insistence on normality, he successful­ly sold the notion that a life of palaces and golden carriages and banquets was one of grinding duty that he could happily do without.

Part of that duty was a commitment as patron or spokespers­on for 800 charities. The Duke of Edinburgh award scheme – what he called “his DIY kit in becoming an adult” – helped to associate the royal family in the minds of generation­s of teenagers with a degree of hardship: wandering about on Exmoor or the Brecon Beacons in the rain arguing about compass bearings. It has also cemented in the public mind the vision of the duke as the spartan outdoorsma­n. The stubbornne­ss of this deerstalki­ng caricature has provided the other “who knew?” element of the tributes, the duke’s apparent fondness for more abstract cultural pleasures. For some reason almost every time I have turned on the radio since he died I have heard someone say that Philip owned a copy of the collected verse of TS Eliot (“Don’t tell anyone,” he would apparently say).

Though he would never have been mistaken for a member of the me generation, he also made efforts to understand those who were. It was another surprise to be reminded of his efforts as a confidant and marriage guidance counsellor, first with Diana and then Sarah Ferguson, though in both cases his advice fell on deaf ears. If his relationsh­ip with his eldest child has always felt like the archetype of that between fathers who had grown up in the war, and sons who had not, his one-line response to criticism of that parenting, “We did our best,” is a motto which might be an epitaph.

Looking back at that Observer announceme­nt of the engagement, it is striking that it came as part of an editorial which wondered if the monarchy was fit for purpose as an institutio­n, whether it would last another generation. A creditable rejoinder to that question over the course of most of our lifetimes has been the extraordin­ary marriage that has held together at the heart of it. If the Queen has offered unblinking steadfastn­ess in that enduring double act, her duke has provided the edge of spark and character. Speaking to Matt Smith, the actor who had been cast to play the role of the young Philip in The Crown, Prince William summed up his grandfathe­r as any grandfathe­r would wish to be summed up: “Legend.”

In the coming days, the gift for propitious timing that seemed to mark Philip’s arrival in Britain’s national life will, you imagine, also mark his departure. Coming at the end of another year in which we have been urgently asking “what is normality now for Britain?” the royal funeral, on a necessaril­y modest scale, will no doubt provide a tone politician­s have failed to summon. It will be a focus for collective sorrow after a pandemic in which many tens of thousands of families have also suffered the heartbreak­ing loss of husbands and wives, parents and grandparen­ts. After 75 years of service, it will feel an appropriat­e farewell.

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 ?? HULTON/GETTY HANNAH MCKAY/AFP/ GETTY ?? ▼ The official engagement photo of the royal couple ▲ Prince Philip embodied the idea of duty
HULTON/GETTY HANNAH MCKAY/AFP/ GETTY ▼ The official engagement photo of the royal couple ▲ Prince Philip embodied the idea of duty
 ?? BETTMANN ?? The Queen and the duke with children Charles and Anne in 1953
BETTMANN The Queen and the duke with children Charles and Anne in 1953

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