Prince Philip's honesty may be politically incorrect, but it was also his greatest strength

As the Duke of Edinburgh announces his retirement, many are quick to criticise him for his 'gaffes', but he was a great asset to the monarchy – and the country

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The Independent Online

It takes a lot to knock Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn off the front headlines on both the day of major local elections and in the midst of a general election. Yet Prince Phillip did it.

But despite all the attention rightly given to his landmark decision to step down from his royal duties, in many ways he has been the opposite of high profile. In reality, he is notable for his low visibility, either working alongside the Queen, but always two paces behind, or quietly making visits of his own on a daily basis. Even the forthright quotes that make juicy reading only work out at an average of one every three years.

Even when Prince Phillip has been outspoken, there has always been an element of truth to his remarks, which may have offended some sensitivities, but which also highlighted a serious point.

When on a school visit, he asked one of the pupils what he wanted to do when he grew up. On being told that the lad intended to be a space explorer, he blurted out: "But you’re too fat to be an astronaut!" Was that an unjust remark that caused a brutal blow to the child’s ego, or a helpful piece of advice that would change his lifestyle and improve his future?

Prince Philip jokes he can 'barely stand up'

He was equally capable of challenging the high and mighty. When discussing the plight of England’s uplands, which had become depopulated in recent years, a leading expert started pontificating on how important it was to get people to settle there.

"Why talk about it?" asked the Prince. "If you want people to do that, go there yourself and get people to follow your lead!" The man fell silent.

On another occasion, during a discussion on prison reform and how to improve the condition of prisons, he interjected: "Nonsense, we need to do the exact opposite, make prisons as horrible as possible, so much so that people in them aren’t keen to go back."

This would certainly displease those who want prison to be a place of education and rehabilitation, but would strike a chord with those who feel it should have a strong deterrent effect. 

But whether one agreed or disagreed with particular comments, his bluntness was the product of a fundamental honesty that stands in stark contrast to those who just mouth platitudes, utter slogans or engage in verbal gymnastics.

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Of course, the vast majority of his work has been away from the cameras, not consorting with the wealthy but meeting ordinary people in factories, or research laboratories, or day-care centres, or youth-training hostels, who work hard and do good, but who never receive publicity and appreciate his interest. He shows they matter to the national life and those visited feel he sprinkles fairy dust over what they do.

Equally hidden from view is his passion for engineering. The Prince Philip Designer Prize has encouraged many to develop their skills, including Ronal Hickman who went on to develop the all-purpose workshop bench known as "Workmate", while another contestant, Andrew Ritchie, designed the folding bicycle. Few people using either of them realise they have the Prince to partially thank.

Whereas the first Queen Elizabeth never married, apparently worried that a husband would take over and become a rival, the current monarch has found that having a husband meant she had a very dutiful "workmate" of her own. The Prince may be slowing down, but hopefully he will continue in good health and go on to receive the centenary letter that his wife sends out.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain is minister of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of Confessions of a Rabbi