One of many peculiarities of Britain’s constitutional arrangements is the habit of calling the wife of a king the Queen, while the husband of the Queen is not king. If Philip Mountbatten, scion of Greek and Danish royalty, from the ancient House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, has ever felt short-changed by his matrimonial alliance with the House of Windsor, he has never let it show.
Prince Philip turns 96 next month and he has maintained a formidable diary of official engagements long past the age at which Her Majesty’s subjects are entitled to a state pension. The Duke of Edinburgh (also the Earl of Merioneth, Baron Greenwich and Lord High Admiral) received generous tribute for the length of his public service on the announcement today of his retirement. His commitment to the work of a modern monarchy is beyond dispute, even to those who believe an institution defined by unearned powers cannot be modern.
It is possible to see perversity in a democracy that anoints its head of state on the basis of heredity, without scorning those royals who play their part with devout conviction. To inherit privilege is no misfortune, but nor does anyone choose to be born with special advantages. Criticism of unjust systems need not spill into personal animosity towards individual beneficiaries of those systems – not least because envy and spite are no way to recruit support for change.
Prince Philip has hardly endeared himself to liberal opinion in Britain, having acquired a reputation for peppering official engagements with ill-judged remarks, from the harmlessly crass to the rudely bigoted. Reactionary attitudes are not confined to any one social class or generation, although it is reasonable to expect that anyone performing diplomatic duties as the spouse of the monarch might have acquired a firmer grasp of diplomacy and modern cultural sensibility with practice.
Yet it is worth remembering that the very idea of royal duties is modern. It is easy to take for granted the expectation that wearers of the crown and their heirs will be driven by an ethos of public service when there is no historical or legal requirement that they do so – only pragmatic demands of self-preservation and a more principled sense of decency. A life of indolence is available to the royal family, but there is enough wisdom in the palaces to grasp that a lapse into Georgian-style decadence would corrode public enthusiasm for the institutions of monarchy. There has been a discernible cajoling of the younger generation – the princes William and Harry – to pull their weight a bit more, and satisfy demand for the performance aspect of professional royalty as the Queen and Prince Philip contemplate retreat from the limelight. The challenges of renewal in an institution so often defined by resistance to change can only get more acute and will require ever greater professional attention by Elizabeth II’s grandchildren.
The concept of a professional royal is peculiar, even paradoxical, since the qualification can only be attained by birth or marriage. But the undeniable diligence of the Queen and Prince Philip is more desirable than a good many other traits that monarchs and their spouses have demonstrated over the centuries. It is, given the sheer oddity of the whole arrangement, a virtue that should not be taken for granted.