Life in the United Kingdom has struck the pause button since it was announced on Friday that the death had taken place of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, married to the Queen for seventy four years. A period of national mourning for eight days has been announced.
The existence of the monarchy gives nations the opportunity to share significant historical moments. A death of one of the stature of Prince Philip makes possible a period of communal recollection which brings into comparison the past and the present and the ways in which , for better or worse the nation has changed.
We need means of doing this. As Edmund Burke memorably said ” Society is a partnership of the dead, the living and the unborn”. The monarchy makes particularly visible, this sense of continuity, especially when we remember one who helped to give the monarchy direction in a period of transformational change. A veteran from the Second World War who served in the Royal Navy with distinction, he married Princess Elizabeth shortly after in 1947. With a background that taught him stoicism and an education that encouraged self-dependence and resilience of character he gave up his promising career to serve the monarchy when Elizabeth became Queen in 1952, after the relatively early death of her father, King George VI.
This post is not meant to present a potted biography of the Prince. That is readily available. Reflections, however, on what his achievement is and the way in which he helped to steer the monarchy through a period of rapid change might be of interest.
Speaking in Canada in 1969 the Duke of Edinburgh declared “It is a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarch. It doesn’t. It exists in the interests of the people, …If at any stage any nation decides that the system is unacceptable, then it is up to them to change it.”
Vernon Bogdanor, a constitutional expert, in an excellent article in “The Times” discussed the way in which the Duke by skilful direction has helped to steer the monarchy during the reign of the Queen to become a beneficial agency widely accepted throughout the United Kingdom. The guiding idea was to direct the monarchy towards public service. This he managed not only through the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme (in which 6.7 million young people in the UK have taken part) but also by supporting the National Playing Fields Association, now Fields in Trust, which sought to protect parks, playing fields and nature reserves to ensure all youngsters had access to open spaces. In addition the Duke became engaged in an amazing range of charitable activities. “The Duke” Bogdanor writes, “was apparently involved with more than 800 charities as an active problem solver as well as a fundraiser, an involvement only ending with his retirement at the age of 96.” All this is separate from his global work as a supporter of conservation which started early in the 1960’s when he helped, for example, to found the World Wildlife Fund(1961).
This energetic application undoubtedly enabled the monarchy to develop a strong and distinctive role in initiating schemes of social benefit and supporting a wide range of charities. Prince Charles, Princess Anne and the younger generation of Royals have continued assiduously the idea the Duke started. To illustrate this Bogdanor quotes the example of Chris Mullin, left-wing Labour MP and former editor of Tribune (that is not a naturally Royalty- supporting background) telling how he was invited to Clarence House fund-raising dinner where he heard Prince Charles speak : “without notes, with passion and self-deprecating humour, holding our attention for a full twenty minutes. Always he comes back to the same point. How to widen the horizons of the young, especially the disaffected, the unlucky and even the malign. I confess I am impressed. He has a track record of achievement clearly visible for anyone who cares to look. Let he who has done more cast the first stone.”
And again David Lammy, LabourMP for Tottenham, points out that after the riots in his constituency many MPS visited, but once, while the Prince of Wales returned five times, bringing charities and businesses to the area to achieve practical results.
Likewise both William and Harry (until he moved away) have continued the tradition with a wide range of impressive charity work most recently in mental health.
Bogdanor concludes on the benefit of constitutional monarchy for those countries that still have them : ” monarchy , by sustaining civil society , also sustains that sense of national cohesion without which democracy cannot function successfully.” That it continues to perform this role in our much divided society is owing not only to the Queen, as our widely loved and much respected sovereign, but also to the insight, dedication and loyalty of the now mourned Duke.