At yesterday’s Order of Merit service at St James’s Palace, a guest said to Prince Philip: “I’m sorry to hear you’re standing down.” Quick as a whippet, the Duke of Edinburgh replied: “Well I can’t stand up much longer.” And that wit is just one of many reasons why he is so widely admired.
The critics call him gaffe-prone and anachronistic. They misjudge his appeal.
The Palace has announced that the Duke, who turns 96 in June, will retire from royal duties in the autumn. His rest is well deserved. The Duke attended 110 days of engagements in 2016 and 25 since the New Year – from unveiling a national memorial on Horse Guards Parade to feeding an elephant at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. Even in retirement the Palace insists that he may well attend events, as and when he chooses to.
The concept of a retirement in a hereditary monarchy might seem strange, but the Duke is a consort rather than a reigning sovereign – and he inhabits an institution that has survived precisely because it is so good at adaptation. At the beginning of the last century, fossilised absolutists were swept away by revolutions. In Britain, the monarchy sensibly reinvented itself as a first family dedicated to public service.
The Duke, born a Greek prince on a tabletop in Corfu, was something of an outsider when he married the then Princess Elizabeth; he gave up a promising military career when she became Queen. Since then, he has served as a model of duty. At their golden wedding anniversary, she said: “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years.”
But as well as providing stability to national life, the Duke has also played his part in its ongoing institutional evolution. He modernised the royal household, promoted new technologies and became a figurehead of the emerging conservation movement.
And one thing he has never, ever been is dull. Even in these later years his energy has been extraordinary: he has been a keen carriage driver since retiring from polo in 1971. Then there is the ready wit. From a visit to Canada: “I declare this thing open, whatever it is.” On marriage: “When a man opens a car door for his wife, it’s either a new car or a new wife.” And on himself: “Bits are beginning to drop off.”
The critics call him gaffe-prone and anachronistic. They misjudge his appeal. The public are not fools – they can tell that the royal schedule can be boring, even surreal. They respect a man who gets on with it and even makes a virtue of the madness. At the same time as we complain that so many democratic politicians seem unreal, it is telling that one of the most “real” people in public life is the Queen’s husband. The Duke ought to be celebrated for it. His jokes communicate honesty, and honesty is critical to integrity. There is nothing inauthentic about Prince Philip. What we see is what we get.
He is capable of great sensitivity. When the monarchy went through its most troubled modern period, in the Nineties, Philip did his best to try to reconcile Charles and Diana. Extracts of letters between Diana and the Duke, whom she referred to as “Dearest Pa”, reveal how kind he can be. After Diana died, Philip did his best to look after and protect her sons.
Time has now necessitated yet another change to the monarchy – adaptation to old age. Royals live longer than they used to; several have retired on the grounds that they are slowing down and it is unreasonable to expect them to continue. Beatrix of the Netherlands, who is 79, abdicated in 2013. That same year, Pope Benedict XVI, an elected monarch who is now 90, stepped aside for a younger man.
Far from these actions representing a defeat for their respective institutions, carefully plotted abdications and retirements prove that the best traditions survive, perhaps counter-intuitively, through pragmatism. Parliament and the Church of England may well look different to how they did a century ago, yet the essence of these institutions endures long after people’s republics and other cults of human progress rise and fall.
The monarchy goes on. It goes on because it fulfils an eternal need for stability and reassurance, but also because it has evolved from posing as a rival to democracy to being a complement to it. How lucky Britain is to have had Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh all these years. Were this a republic, we would have a politicised head of state in a state of constant constitutional friction with the legislature. Or face the prospect of a presidential contest as controversial as Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump, or Marine Le Pen vs Emmanuel Macron. The Royal family, which is taken for granted too often, is simply one of the best things about being British.
We hope that the Duke’s retirement is happy and peaceful – and that he knows just how much the British people appreciate his years of service to this great country.