Prince Philip was a dinosaur – but the royal family might struggle to keep Jurassic Park going without him

Over the coming days and weeks, a watching nation will find there has been a truly immeasurable amount of time set aside for saying things about which there is very little to say

Tom Peck
Political Sketch Writer
Saturday 10 April 2021 14:37
Prince Philip obituary: The Duke of Edinburgh dies aged 99

Nine years ago, on the occasion of Prince Philip’s 90th birthday, The Independent marked the occasion with a long, perhaps even comprehensive list of some of Prince Philip’s somewhat poorly chosen public comments – “90 gaffes at 90”.

For a paper that has tended to take a less-is-more approach to royal coverage, it was somewhat inconvenient, in some ways, that for a very long time, quite possibly years, it hovered very near the top of the website’s most read, most shared and most dwelt on articles.

There is, to be frank, something there for everyone, and a hell of a lot that is not suitable for anyone at all. Together they form an occasionally wince-inducing tableau of a man very far behind the times of even a very long time ago.

But, dare one say it? Dare one even think it? It is not as easy as one might imagine to get to the end of the list without flashing a smile at all. “What do you gargle with – pebbles?” said to Tom Jones at the 1969 Royal Variety Performance.

“If it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she isn’t interested.” This was his verdict on his own daughter, Princess Anne.

In the hours after his death, as the long pre-planned obituaries were rolled out, the first of his apparent never-ending list of virtues was his dedication to environmentalism. This passion was alas never made clear, to take but one of very many examples, to a crocodile he shot dead in the Gambia in 1957. "It’s not a very big one, but at least it’s dead and it took an awful lot of killing!" he said then.

I met him, once, as it happens. When I was 18, he and the Queen came to open a new room at my university. I can vividly recall the sight of a silver service table servant walking across a Cambridge courtyard, doing his best to balance, at shoulder height, a silver tray containing a single pint of beer, which he had had no choice but to go up to the student bar to fetch, when the duke rejected the fine wines he was meant to be having with his lunch.

He had a second pint with the student committee afterwards, and then, when the visit was over, perhaps over the drink-driving limit, he hopped into the front of his Land Rover and drove off with the Queen in the front seat. I have always felt that rather summed up the man.

Over the coming days and weeks, a watching nation will find there has been a truly immeasurable amount of time set aside for saying things about which there is very little to say.

He was born to immense privilege. He was given immense opportunities to use that privilege to do good, and for the most part, did so. But this was counterbalanced by an Alan Partridge-esque tendency to say things that were meant to be amusing, and in some cases were amusing, but were nevertheless often at the expense of maligned people that he could have sought to raise up, instead of punch down upon.  

And that, really, is it. It is said that he modernised the monarchy, that he was the driving force behind various reforms that made it a more justifiable institution in the modern world. That may be true, but he leaves behind much, much more that needs doing; and will be made more urgent by his going.

It would appear that there will be no state funeral, and no bank holiday, at the duke’s own request. One imagines the duke himself would find it somewhat baffling that the occasion of the death of a 99-year-old man has been deemed an inappropriate time for the wider nation to watch the Masterchef final, which has been removed from the BBC schedules as a mark of respect.

That, frankly, is mad. Only 7 per cent of the world’s population still lives under monarchy. Humanity, generally speaking, has come to the settled view that money and power and status and respect are prizes to be earnt, not passed down by birthright.

In the UK, the almost mindbending longevity of the Queen and her husband complicate that question. For most of the general public, the respect and admiration held for them has arguably been earnt as much as it has been inherited.

Of course, that the Queen dukes it out with David Attenborough at the top of polls for the most trusted and most admired person in Britain is principally because in close to a full century in public life, she has never given an opinion on anything. The same certainly could not have been said for her husband. And for her son, even less so.

Yes, Prince Philip was a dinosaur. But as his family may soon discover, it will be their job to keep Jurassic Park going without him. Best of luck with that.

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