Fourteen prime ministers; 18 general elections; seven changes of government. Even in a stable country like Britain it is remarkable how much political water has flowed under the bridge in the 69 years since the late Duke of Edinburgh became consort to Elizabeth II. Britain has gone from a country of outside lavatories to one of conspicuous wealth, from an independent nation to a member of the EU and back again, from an empire to a champion of global trade. Some see the past seven decades as a period of national decline, yet the quality of life has improved hugely. In 1952, life expectancy at birth for Britons was 69; now it is 81. To have lived for almost a century is still an impressive feat, but is a lot more common now than it was at the beginning of the second Elizabethan age.
Prince Philip has deservedly won warm tributes for the characterful and committed way he served his adoptive country. For much of his life, there could scarcely have been anyone more British in his wit and attitude. His ability to put people at ease, aided by the occasional off-colour remark, was that of a man who instinctively knew how to break through class boundaries without compromising the dignity of his office. Far from being the relic some claimed him to be, he set up an award scheme that was ahead of its time and has withstood the years well.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral has necessarily been stripped of much pageantry because of Covid. There has been no suggestion that the royal family would override the restrictions which apply to everyone else, and so a maximum of 30 mourners has been allowed, with no public procession involved. That is a shame as many people would have wished to express their affection. But the prospect of a reduced funeral would not have bothered this down-to-earth man. He did, after all, request his final journey to be undertaken in an adapted Land Rover.
In praising the man himself, something should also be said of the institution which he served for so long. As well as being a time of mourning, the past week has been a time to celebrate the abiding qualities of a constitutional monarchy. The Queen and her family stand above the political fray, which makes it extremely difficult for would-be despots and demagogues to build power, let alone seize it. No one would have understood that better than Prince Philip himself, who lived his early life as a rootless royal after the fall of the Greek monarchy.
This is not to say that republics cannot also be stable democracies; the United States, for example, has amply demonstrated that it has the institutions and customs to keep its leaders in their place. But there is a beauty in having guards against the misuse of power baked into the system. Whatever the skulduggery that goes on at one end of the Mall, at the other we can be sure of the enduring soft power of the monarchy.
The Duke proved as exemplary as the Queen. He never betrayed a political opinion beyond the odd generalised demand to the nation’s workers to ‘pull your finger out’ — quite a feat for a man who clearly liked to talk, and in colourful language. As with the Queen herself, the Duke became such a fixture of national life that it was easy to forget he was mortal. But of course he was and she is. It is to be hoped that the second Elizabethan age will last many more years, but it will not last forever.
Should we fear what comes next? The recent behaviour of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex gives cause for concern. Their attempt to use their titles for profitable careers as global celebrities has demeaned their position. We have had rebellious royals before: the monarchy survived Edward VIII’s abdication. But never has royalty clashed quite so brutally with celebrity culture.
According to Prince Harry, his family are ‘imprisoned’ by the monarchy. If that is how his grandmother, grandfather, father and brother have ever felt, they have been remarkably good at hiding it. Their demeanour has always suggested the opposite: that they have each willingly taken on the mantle of the positions into which they were born or, in the Duke’s case, married. Our royal palaces are not full of hostages but largely of people who, for all their faults, have taken seriously their constitutional role. For the Duke that meant giving up a career in the navy which might have led to the very top.
There is no point in forcing anyone into a life for which they are ill-suited and that they do not wish to lead. Any royal who does not want to play along should be free to cede their privileges and lead the life of a private citizen. A smaller working royal family has, indeed, been mooted for some time. The present one will function perfectly well without the Sussexes.
The Duke’s death has left the nation without a great servant and a character who could enliven the dreariest of occasions. But the monarchy is bigger than any monarch or member of their family. The Duke’s personal longevity stands as a symbol of the system itself.