Prince Philip plays with young Charles and Anne in 50-year-old archive footage

Prince Philip was more than a caricature of a grumpy old man – he was a royal moderniser

The late Duke of Edinburgh understood that the House of Windsor and its predecessors had only lasted this long because of public support – and that meant adapting and evolving to meet the British people’s changing demands

Sean O'Grady@_seanogrady
Saturday 10 April 2021 11:57

It’s worth remembering, among all the tributes to the late Prince Philip, that he was more than just an irascible caricature of a grumpy old man. Many found it perfectly charming, indeed refreshing, that he was the sort of chap who wouldn’t embrace fashionable ideas just for the sake of it, or change his rather steely mind just to go with the flow. You might suppose, let us say, that he represented the polar opposite of his grandson Prince Harry, not to mention Meghan Markle.

Wrong. Philip was a moderniser; a patriarch of a dynasty that has lasted, almost interrupted, for a thousand years. He understood – perhaps instinctively, perhaps by a study of history, perhaps by acute observation of the world around him – that the House of Windsor and its predecessors had only lasted for as long as they had by retaining public support. And that meant adapting and evolving in line with what the public wanted, and to changes in society, and by exploiting the new technologies of whatever time it found itself in. After all, the “House of Windsor” itself was what we might now understand to be a cynical marketing exercise, a “rebranding” in 1917 of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, in response to virulent anti-German feelings during the Great War. (For the same reason the family of Philip’s uncle, Louis Mountbatten, had changed their surname from Battenberg). This understanding of the changing role and image of the monarchy was one that he shared with his wife, but perhaps not always with the courtiers that surrounded them.

As chair of “The Firm”, Philip inserted himself into all the debates about the role of exciting emerging technologies in the 1950s and 1960s; more delicately into the arguments about modernising British industry, and the role of management and unions; and of course was a pioneering voice in the field of conservation, and the then new World Wildlife Fund. The Duke of Edinburgh Award was at least novel, and seems to have been surprisingly popular and durable – and has also evolved, having been launched as a scheme “for boys”.

As the Commonwealth nations gained their independence from Britain, he welcomed them, just as his wife did, into a post-imperial, post-white-supremacist, multiracial and multicultural community of equals. The jokes in poor taste ought not to obscure that fact. He didn’t mind being worshipped as a living god – “Man Belong Mrs Queen” – by the people of Tanna in the South Pacific, though it wasn’t exactly a “modernising” moment for him. Philip was the first royal to agree to a television interview, back in 1961, and was behind the groundbreaking “behind the scenes” documentary Royal Family in 1969. Sensational at the time as a first glimpse into the domestic life of the Queen and her family, it marked a revolution in the way the palace viewed the media. Subsequent relations were not to be so well-managed.

Which brings us to Harry and Meghan, and how badly things have developed between them and the British press. Now there is a relationship that could do with some modernisation. Their wish to have a portion of their lives that can be called “private” is probably the only way that a healthy dynamic between the press and the monarchy can be managed. Otherwise we see what we have seen for some decades past: an endless war of attrition, between predatory journalists who believe that anyone in public life is “fair game” and the prey themselves, who, in Meghan and Harry’s case, have had to travel halfway round the world to escape with their sanity. It’s inherently unhealthy and unstable for all concerned.

Philip was hardly “woke”, and who knows what antediluvian views he might have privately harboured, but there’s every reason to think that he and the Queen welcomed Meghan into The Firm as a figure who would change the image of the monarchy – and, yes, make it more diverse. If the House of Windsor wants to keep its leading role in the life of the nation and of the Commonwealth, then it cannot continue to be “hideously white”, to borrow a phrase. A thoughtful man who devoted his life to serving the institution, himself a migrant and a refugee (albeit a rich one), Philip well understood how Britain was changing. He might not have been woke, but neither was he asleep.

So Philip was a moderniser, so far as he could be. While he was as wilful and determined as his image suggested, as often as not that meant impatience with the traditional ways of the royal court. Much of this was a natural reaction to being denatured – emasculated even – by sometimes made-up “traditions”, such as being denied the right to give his children his surname, or acquiring the title of “Prince Consort”. Where he could, though, in his public role, he sought to reform the monarchy – for its own good, and to make himself and the institution “useful”.

Harry and Meghan have all too clearly found themselves at odds with a conservative court: one that probably does vaguely want to reflect contemporary British society, but doesn’t quite know how to. They too had a manifesto for reforming the monarchy’s role in modern Britain, melding tradition and service with privacy and diversity. Unlike Philip, however, they hadn’t the influence to see their ideas made real and the monarchy made to look more like the Britain of today. This does not suggest a good prognosis for the future of the royal family.

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