Out of touch - by definition

Dukes don't mix with ordinary people, they just shake hands with them, so we can hardly be surprised when Prince Philip fails to understand their worries about a gun culture, says Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
You have the advantage of me. By now you will have heard - or had the opportunity to hear - the Duke of Edinburgh holding forth last night on Radio Five Live on the question of Dunblane and cricket bats.

Let me insist at once, I would not have wanted to listen to what he said before writing this, even if the BBC had kindly sent me an advance tape. (Presumably they sent one to somebody to judge by the row in yesterday's newspapers). I have decided rather to enter into the spirit of the man himself, who makes a habit of wading in joyously unprepared and ill-informed, his prejudices streaming behind him like unfurled banners in a glorious old film of royalty as it should be.

Let me declare my own prejudice. I rather like the curmudgeonly old cove with his impatience, his lack of tact and his unerring ability to delivery an epithet of unfailing political incorrectness in any given situation. He also keeps us journalists in work, prompting The Sun to one of its more inspired offerings: his characterisation of the Chinese as "slitty- eyed" on a visit to Peking was headlined "The Great Wally of China".

Having said that, perhaps the time has come when the 75-year-old Duke ought to be advised to alter the description in his passport under Occupation from "Prince of the Royal Household" to "retired". Let me explain why.

I met the Duke of Edinburgh once. I met him, though I'm not sure that he met me. I was the lowliest reporter in The Times newsroom when the Queen and the Duke came to visit. Worthies were lined up to meet the visitors. I was told to get on with my work. As a consequence, when Philip arrived I was the only person in the entire newsroom actually typing anything. The Duke, naturally enough, ignored the official line-up and came over to see me.

"You have to be able to type pretty fast, I suppose," he pronounced. It was not the most profound of conversational gambits. Had I been the oldest occupant of the newsroom doubtless he would have said: "You must have seen some changes in your time." As consort to the monarch he is doomed to a lifetime of these brief inanities.

Who can wonder that from time to time something indiscreet pops out? And whenever something does he can rely on us loyal subjects of the fourth estate to re-chronicle his greatest hits from 50 years of public life.

He began in 1947 when, newly engaged to the heir presumptive, he asked a railway signalman about his promotion prospects; on being told it was a case of dead men's shoes Philip replied: "Just like me!" Next there was the time he asked the loyal subjects of the Cayman Islands, "Aren't you all descended from pirates?" and said in Canada, "We don't come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves."

Then there was his observation at the height of the recession in 1981: "Everybody was saying we must have more leisure. Now they are complaining they are unemployed." In 1993, visiting Lockerbie, where 11 people on the ground had been killed by wreckage from the PanAm jumbo-jet bomb, he tactlessly observed: "People usually say that after a fire it is water damage that is the worst. We are still trying to dry out Windsor Castle." And in 1995 he asked a Scottish driving instructor: "How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test."

In part it is tactlessness. In part it is that he does not give a bugger (sorry, ducal language is infectious). But in the main it is that he is, almost by definition, out of touch with the mood of the British public. The Duke does not mix with ordinary society; he just shakes hands with it.

Take what he said about Dunblane last night (OK, so I have read a transcript). "Look," he said, "if a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat, which he could do very easily, I mean, are you going to ban cricket bats?"

To which Beverley Birnie, whose six-year-old son Matthew survived the shootings at Dunblane, replied: "How many people can you kill in three- and-a-half minutes with a cricket bat? It is not the same as an automatic gun. You have to be realistic. I suspect he [the Duke] is coming from a world where guns are part of his life. But I am from a world where I have never seen a gun, never held one. I never had a reason to think about them."

Guns are as everyday a part of Prince Philip's life as cricket bats, probably more so. It is his failure to make the leap in imagination from his own position to the one occupied by the vast bulk of his wife's subjects which is significant.

It is a failure of his age - the House of Lords was last week full of other elderly aristocrats opposing gun law reform with anecdotes about their boyhood relationships with their gamekeepers. It is a failure of his class - none of those surrounding the royals seemed able to explain to them the distaste of the general public at the "blooding" of Prince William when he killed his first stag recently. It is a failure of the institution of monarchy itself, with its desperate attempt to combine tradition with modernity - so that its modern image seeks to encompass pomp, concern about the environment and cavorting on distant ski slopes even in the days when the rest of us were immured in the feel-bad factor of recession.

Who but a royal could be surprised that gaps open up between public and courtly perceptions, with the public complaining when no royal attended the 1989 Lockerbie memorial service or visited the devastated centre of Manchester after the 1995 IRA bomb. Or that the Duke's son Charles is bewildered when he confesses on television to adultery and finds that the public give him no Brownie points for honesty. Or that this week people find faintly risible the fact that his other son Andrew has been despatched to Manila for talks with President Fidel Ramos on military and economic ties between the Philippines and Britain. Randy Andy?

Of course paradox has always been part of the charm of the energetic man who unhappily finds himself permanently defined by a wife and son more important than himself.

Philip was the foreign prince whom the old-Etonian courtiers of King George VI described as "rough, ill-tempered, uneducated and probably would be unfaithful" to the then Princess Elizabeth (interesting that for all the dirt-digging of the tabloids, and the predations of the US biographer Kitty Kelly, no evidence of his much-rumoured infidelity has ever been produced).

He is the president of the World Wide Fund for Nature who shoots things and supports the legalisation of the ivory trade. He is the tireless worker for a vast array of charities - from playing fields for children to care for ex-servicemen - and yet he is popularly assumed to be careless of the sensitivities of individual human beings.

In the end it was the cricket bat which did for him. The full text of his radio remarks are a sensible enough contribution to the debate on gun control which the House of Lords has chosen to extend after the Bill's swift passage through the Commons. He made the point that the members of shooting clubs are as individuals no more dangerous than members of a golf club. He argued that there are always going to be unstable people who are going to do monstrous things but that "taking it out on the rest of the population" is not necessarily the most rational of reactions. He insisted that his kind of shooting - game shooting - was a social activity which helped to maintain a balance in the environment. And he warned that laws made in electioneering haste may be repented in more dispassionate leisure.

However, it was the grotesque piece of imagery he conjured - of a child being beaten to death with a cricket bat - which was so singularly inapt and inept.

"To think of the Queen coming up here and laying a wreath at our school and then hearing her husband say something like this sickens me," responded Ann Pearston, one of the anti-gun Snowdrop Campaign organisers.

The politicians, of course, have had a field-day. Tony Blair was characteristically Janus-faced: "He is entitled to his views and obviously we in the Labour Party have a different position on that," he told BBC1's Breakfast News.

The shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson put his finger on the real problem. Robertson, whose children attended the same Dunblane school, said on the BBC 's Today programme: "The views of one elderly aristocrat, based on a completely crazy view of a comparison between a cricket bat and a rapid-fire handgun, is not going to deflect Parliament from doing what it believes to be right in the interests of public safety."

But he did not restrict himself to dismissing Prince Philip as "an eccentric individual" whose comments had damaged his credibility enormously. He added: "I think these remarks are going to be counter-productive, because they will remind people that this argument is still going on and the House of Lords may well be planning to inflict defeats on the Government."

It was not just the Duke of Edinburgh's inability to resist the colourful phrase and dramatic comparison which is most revealing. It is his inability - like that of his peers in the Lords - to grasp that for the British public the argument is over. Most people understand the arguments about the need to balance the rights of minorities with the common good. They accept that most gun owners are responsible individuals.

But most of the public, having no personal vested interests in the gun world, have performed a risk/benefit analysis and its conclusion is clear. And it is not just a response to Dunblane. Handguns, public opinion is clear, contribute towards a wider culture of violence in contemporary Britain. And events over the past year - from Dunblane, to the campaign by Frances Lawrence, the widow of the murdered headmaster, to the whole host of incidents which daily soil the pages of our fear-hungry newspapers - have persuaded people that it is time to act.

Perhaps only a gunman could not see that. And Prince Philip if he is anything is a gun man. Only two months ago he was provoking an outcry by declaring shooting "an intelligent leisure activity" for children. Over the past 30 years the Duke of Edinburgh has shot, it is estimated, a tiger, two crocodiles, 60 wild boar, countless stags, rabbits and ducks and at least 30,000 pheasants. Perhaps if he had restricted himself to clubbing them to death with a cricket bat the world would be a safer place.