Johann Hari: Spare us the fawning over Prince Philip

When Elizabeth became the Queen, he was forced to quit his job in the Navy, and became depressed for months

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Is there a more consistently hilarious sight in Britain than the endless parade of slavering monarchists trying to convince us the Windsor family is the embodiment of virtue and hard work? Today is the 90th birthday of Philip Mountbatten. Ordinarily, I would wish him a happy day, as I would any other 90-year-old, and then let the event pass in silence – if only the monarchists were not so relentlessly using the event as yet another propaganda tool for their snobbery-soaked institution. But we can't let yet another bout of their myth-making pass without answer.

Today, you are being encouraged to celebrate a man who merrily visited a genocidal dictator and used the occasion to sneer at British democracy. A man whose political interventions even prompted complaints from the far-right Enoch Powell. A man who, at the height of mass unemployment, mocked the unemployed, while complaining his own family of multi-millionaires was financially deprived. A man who has shot countless examples of endangered species – and then sought praise for his protection of wildlife.

But let's start with the myth. Monarchists feel the need to claim that the Windsors are somehow more worthy than the rest of us, but this is difficult, since they consist merely of whoever randomly emerges from a royal womb, and whoever that package of DNA and unearned privilege then chooses to marry. Windsors are thrown up by chance, and must have imaginary merits thrust upon them. You can see how hard this is by reading the moist panegyric written by the conservative commentator Peter Oborne last week. He said Philip is "colossally important" because... um... Well, he said, he represents continuity. That's true. If you gave my father a job for life from which he couldn't be fired and a slew of golden palaces to live in, he'd represent continuity too. So would yours. So would literally anyone in Britain.

The pickings then got even slimmer. Oborne claimed Philip should be lauded because he has "never once caused... embarrassment". And "there has never been the slightest hint of scandal". No, really. He wrote that. So let's look at the things Oborne and the monarchists believe are not embarrassing or scandalous in any way.

Alfredo Stroessner was one of the most vicious dictators of the 20th-century. He seized power in Paraguay in a coup d'état, and set about kidnapping and torturing anybody who objected, ending up facing charges of genocide from the UN. At the height of the terror, Philip visited the country – paid for by your taxes – and told the beaming tyrant: "It's a pleasant change to be in a country that isn't ruled by its people." The torture chambers were crammed and screaming less than a mile away. This wasn't seen as a joke by Stroessner. No wonder that – as Francis Wheen's fascinating history Strange Days Indeed shows – when far right-wingers and establishment grandees responded to instability in Britain in the 1970s by mooting a military coup, they intended Philip to be the figurehead of their junta. (Nothing is known of his feelings about this.)

Philip has his own taste for killing, although on a thankfully smaller scale. Throughout his life he has taken great pleasure in slaughtering endangered species with highly sophisticated nervous systems and a strong capacity to feel pain, just for fun. For example, on one shooting trip alone in the late 1960s, he personally killed a tiger, a crocodile and a rhinoceros. Before anybody writes in to say that standards were different then, look up the press clippings: people were disgusted at the time. Yet in their list of reasons to admire Philip, monarchists always list his "commitment to protecting wildlife" as symbolic head of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). It's enough to make a rhinocerous laugh – if only Philip hadn't shot it first.

Philip doesn't have much pity for the sentient beings he shoots, but he does have quite a lot for himself. In an interview in 1970, he complained that the Windsors were suffering unacceptable financial pressures, and warned of catastrophes to come. He might, he warned with a pained expression, have to give up polo. And – the agony only grows – "We may need to move into smaller premises, who knows?" He didn't say which of the four massive palaces he occupies might have had to be downsized, or whether he might have had to abandon the fully stocked barbers' shop reserved entirely for his personal use.

However Philip has also denied that anybody in Britain is poor. When unemployment surged in the early 1980s to levels not seen since the 1930s, he jeered: "Everyone was saying we must have more leisure. Now they are complaining they are unemployed."

To be fair, in case anybody thinks this is snobbery, Philip extends this callousness to his own children. When Philip and Elizabeth's youngest son was five years old, they abandoned him to nannies so they could tour Australia for six months, and when they returned, the tiny child was forced to wait in line to shake his parents' hand.

But, wait. There is a sympathetic explanation for some of Philip's horrible behaviour. There are many good reasons to oppose the idea of monarchy in the 21st-century, and one is that, by stripping them of any ability to make their own choices, it curdles the family at its core.

In 1993, Philip said: "It wasn't my ambition to be President of the Mint Advisory Committee. I didn't want to be President of the WWF. I'd much rather have stayed in the Navy, frankly." When Elizabeth became the Queen, he had to quit his job, and became depressed for months. The "gaffes" that keep being wheeled out suggest a man angry at the position he is trapped in, and at all of us for putting him there. In the Republic of Britain, he could have achieved his real ambition of being an admiral and led a much happier life.

That brings us to the one real reason why Philip deserves our respect and gratitude. Before the Second World War, his sisters all married supporters of the Nazi tyranny, including an SS colonel – but there's no doubt which side Philip was on. He repeatedly risked his life in the Royal Navy fighting for the Allies, and took a heroic part in the Allied invasion of Sicily. People who glibly insult him today by calling him a "Nazi" are ignorant – he came close to dying to stop the Nazis. It's much more than they, or I, have ever done.

That should point us, though, to a wider and deeper form of gratitude. All across Britain, there are 90-year-old men who engaged in that incredible act of collective heroism. One was my former neighbour, Elbert Hutton, who died last month. He fought in France and Italy, then returned and worked hard his whole life. But nobody ever gave him a palace to live in, and nobody ever wrote fawning articles about him in the Daily Telegraph. He got a small council house and no garlands. Yet Elbert was much more deserving than Philip. He never fawned over any dictators, or shot any endangered species, or complained about his lot, even though he had unimaginably less. I'd like to see a Britain where we assess Elbert and Philip on their merits – and don't expect the better man to bow before the fool.

j.hari@independent.co.uk





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