The future of the monarchy always comes into focus at moments such as this. Britain, a nation greatly troubled by all sorts of divisions, disfigured by what are often branded “culture wars”, needs its unifying figures and forces more than ever. Prince Philip was himself someone who attracted controversy and divided opinion, as it happens, but the point remains.
The United Kingdom (sadly an increasingly ironic title) has to start looking to a future after this generation has passed – and must pay attention to what still brings it together.
The immediate impact, understandably, will be a further outpouring of sympathy and support for the Queen. Remarkably, it is more than 80 years since the young Princess Elizabeth of York first set eyes on the Greek adonis and fell in love with him. They went on to enjoy 73 years of marriage.
It was he, more than anyone (except, perhaps, she herself) who made the British monarchy what it is today: a survivor, despite its many crises.
The Queen, then, at the age of 94, is more popular than ever; and very possibly the most popular monarch in British history – an even greater achievement, given the age of deference has long since passed.
It is down to her innate sense, born of long experience, of what to do and say. Her “Covid speech” last year was a remarkable reminder of that gift. “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again,” she said.
For her, and for her heirs and successors, the key to continued survival as an institution remains what it has always been: to prove useful, and thereby to carry the support of the people. There is no divine right of this anachronistic organisation to reign – still less to rule – and a sober recognition of that is one of the reasons why the House of Windsor enjoys the status it still does.
First, the royal family has to be regarded by the public as a working family, and not to misbehave – sexually, financially, or in any other way. In return for the vast palaces and the vast privileges, they have always had to do what the public expects of them: to turn up and do their bit. In more recent times, they have been expected to pay their taxes, and not to indulge themselves extravagantly.
They are also, as part of this tacit bargain, supposed to act honourably and decently in their lives, including their private lives. What is acceptable or not in the private sphere varies over time and according to the case; but most of the crises in the lives of the monarchy in the last century have consisted of no more or less than its members falling in and out of love with other people, or pursuing adulterous affairs.
There has been little, if any, politics attached to most of these crises. Even the traumas after the death of Diana stemmed from the breakdown of the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Prince Andrew’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein, jetting around and keeping the wrong sort of company, was a high-profile example of selfishness and foolishness, and did the institution no good, to say the least. Although, it has to be said, any wrongdoing has been vehemently denied.
The modern monarchy and its personalities are really a branch of showbusiness. And, like the celebs, they have to do some good in order to continue to command respect.
Apart from their formal duties, that means plenty of charity work and establishing schemes such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. It is no longer enough, as it has not been for some time, just to go around cutting ribbons, making bland speeches and pinning medals on to lollipop ladies.
Again, the present royals show an acute understanding of this, adopting unfashionable causes such as mental health in the way that Diana, for example, chose to be publicly associated with people with AIDS at a time when the tabloids were happy to dismiss the disease as the “gay plague”. Leading, but not defying, public opinion is expected.
The most difficult task, though, is the one that the House of Windsor has tried and, in my opinion, failed so spectacularly to achieve recently: to look and sound more like the multicultural and multiracial nation and Commonwealth it purports to represent.
There may be nothing that can now be done about the departure of the young couple, but the arrival of Meghan Markle, along with her marriage to Prince Harry, was the most bright and hopeful sign that the British monarchy is still able to adapt and evolve with the times – another chapter in its story of survival.
Instead, through no fault of Harry and Meghan, they found themselves the cause and subject of yet another culture war, and an unfortunate focus of argument and division. It was the last royal crisis that Prince Philip was exposed to, and he was in no position to help chart the course away from the dangers.
Over the next few months and years, the Queen will – as she has already – come to rely increasingly on Prince Charles for advice and guidance about the future of The Firm. He has his ideas and obsessions: all well-meaning, some eccentric, and some useful.
But the truth, in my view, is that he is the person most responsible for some of the monarchy’s crises and periodic slumps in popularity, with his father and mother having been mostly responsible for clearing up the mess and for getting the show back on the road.
As the chair of “The Firm”, succeeding his father, the Prince of Wales will have to show more wisdom than he did in the past. The death of Prince Philip marks a peak in the monarchy’s popularity, and of affection for the Queen; the future is much more uncertain than it seems.