The rush to judge the Duke of Edinburgh by the standards of 2021 says more about us than him. We are forgetting the habits of decorum that help to bind a society
“How am I alive after witnessing what I have done? Oh! I who prayed daily that we might die together & I never survive Him! I who felt when in those blessed Arms clasped & held tight in the sacred Hours at night…. I felt so vy secure…. I never dreamt of the physical possibility of such a calamity – such an awful catastrophe – for me – for All.”
So wrote Queen Victoria on 18 December 1861, four days after the death at Windsor of her husband, Prince Albert. Nine decades later, on 25 February 1952, the newly widowed Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, wrote to Tommy Lascelles, private secretary to George VI (who had passed away in his sleep on 6 February) that a beautiful morning “is almost unbearable, & seems to make everything a thousand times worse. I suppose it will get better some day.”
Thus do we pore over the past, in search of some clue to what our own Queen must now be experiencing, three days after the death of her own husband – to gain an inkling of the “huge void in her life” of which she has spoken to her children.
There are universal elements to bereavement, to the first wave of solitude. Yet these two instances of royal grief are by no means precise precedents. The Queen’s great-great-grandmother, Victoria, was only 42 when Albert died, and had been married to him for 21 years. Her mother was 51 when her father died, after 28 years together.
In contrast, the Queen is 94 years old, and had the Duke of Edinburgh at her side for 73 years. She is not confronted – as were her mother and Victoria – by widowhood at a relatively early age.
Instead, in her tenth decade, she is suddenly faced by the huge responsibility of reigning alone, without her cherished husband of three quarters of a century: though never her constitutional equal, he was, in practice, half of the most successful partnership ever to steer the monarchy through the shoals of change.
It is clear that, in his last years, Prince Philip gave Prince Charles – to whom he had grown closer – detailed advice on how to assist the Queen if, as he expected, he predeceased his wife. In a remarkable tribute on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Sir John Major expressed the hope that this period of mourning and the Duke’s funeral on Saturday might also be an opportunity for Princes William and Harry to resolve – or start to resolve – the tensions that have grown between them.
“The friction that we are told has arisen is a friction better ended as speedily as possible,” said the former prime minister, “and their shared emotion and shared grief at the present time because of the death of their grandfather I think is an ideal opportunity,”
This involves more than sentimental hopes for the private wellbeing of a recently bereaved family. Philip’s death is what geologists would call the “foreshock” of a coming seismic event in our national life: sadly but inevitably, the Second Elizabethan Era is now drawing to a close, and the custodians of the monarchy must think hard about the work that lies ahead.
True, the Queen herself is as popular as ever. But it would be a grave error to assume that the public’s deep affection for her can be equated with deep affection for the institution itself.
Indeed, in a personality-driven, digital culture, no institution can take anything for granted any longer: the old assumptions of continuity that used to govern the relationship between the people and the Crown have evaporated. Any institution facing disruption – as the monarchy undoubtedly is – must, as a matter of urgency, seek fresh forms and sources of allegiance, almost as if from scratch.
The complexity of that task has already been evident in the three days since the Duke’s death was announced on the airwaves at 12:04pm on Friday. Within minutes, social media was fizzing with scolding references to his moments of bigotry, political incorrectness or risqué humour.
And there it was, the laziest word in the entire modern political lexicon: “problematic”. Why lazy? Because it communicates no real meaning. It implies that the person who sees or hears the word will understand immediately what the “problem” is. It is the knowing nod of the self-righteous, the arched eyebrow of the political prig.
If you have a “problem”, spell it out, please.
And look: it would be a fool’s errand to deny that the prince said many regrettable things over the years, plenty of which, unsurprisingly, do not meet the exacting standards of social justice movements in 2021. But, then again, consider this.
How many 99-year-olds do you imagine could get through 73 years of life in the public eye – including 22,191 solo engagements, visits to 143 countries in an official capacity, acting as patron to 780 organisations – without saying something objectionable from time to time?
Before you cast the first stone, consider your own life. Imagine that your every aside is recorded, your every joke publicly judged, your every attempt to break the ice reported – how do you think your own record will stand, in those circumstances, if you make it to 99? Bearing in mind that what constitutes “crossing the line” is more than likely to have shifted considerably by, say, 2095?
This is not to excuse every aspect of Philip’s behaviour; simply to recommend some perspective. And also to urge some decorum, for a short while at least.
On Friday, only hours after the Duke had died, Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, was on CNN condemning him “as a throwback to old-school racism. Painting him as a benign, cuddly uncle of the nation is simply untrue.”
As it happens, Prof Andrews has recently published a fine book, The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World , which should be read by anyone interested in how contemporary Britain and other Western nations should come to terms with their imperialist past and teach history honestly and rigorously.
As a historian, he is richly entitled to form whatever view he likes of the late prince. The question is whether it was necessary to begin the assault quite so quickly.
What was achieved, other than vindictive glee, by all those who shared online a 2017 article by a Columbia University professor, claiming that, “[t]here is a beautiful barbarity of truth to Prince Philip’s racism, exposing the ugly hypocrisy at the very foundation of ‘Western civilisation’”? Or by the Socialist Worker publishing its report of Philip’s death on Friday under the headline: “Queen mourns as another racist bites the dust”?
It is instinctive to grieve and rage and rend your garments when someone you love or care about dies, or when a death symbolises an injustice or a cause or a group that is close to your heart. What is much more revealing is whether you can muster some dignity and restraint in the case of someone about whom you don’t feel such emotions.
The distinction is what defines decorum. Increasingly, our society is beset by the narcissism that assumes that the only conceivable significance of a person is what they represented – or didn’t represent – to you, personally (hence that other weasel word, “relatable”).
Why does this matter? Because a society exists in time as well as space. Prince Philip was one of the most prominent remaining connections between our own time and the Second World War, in which he acquitted himself valiantly and with distinction. That conflict was, by some margin, the greatest battle against “institutional racism” yet fought by humanity.
To grasp this is not to belittle the challenge of racial injustice that we face today: quite the opposite. Rather, it is to encourage the long view; to resist the reflex to sneer at everything past, and to understand instead that history (which is to say, the agency of our forebears) has bequeathed us good fortune as well as unhealed wounds.
Of this much we can be sure: no community, large or small, can define itself by grievance alone. Yet, increasingly, the default positions of contemporary society are victimhood and consumerism. Hence, it is sad, but no real surprise, that the BBC had to post a special complaints form for those objecting that it was devoting too much coverage to the Duke’s death.
Bear in mind the condemnation that the Beeb faced in 2002 when the late Peter Sissons wore a burgundy rather than a black tie as he announced the death of the Queen Mother. It must have crossed the mind of Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general, to implore the viewing public this weekend: for God’s sake, make your mind up.
Perhaps they have, in fact, done so, rebelling finally against the rare moments of national unity that the death of a historic public figure can inspire; preferring instead the fragmentation without limit that digital technology has turbo-charged.
If so, that would be a huge social loss. The only tools needed by a citizen would be a smartphone and a remote control – but would such a form of “citizenship” be worthy of the name? It is when we come together in communal rituals, informal or otherwise, that we transcend the polarisation, atomisation and isolation that are such a part of the spirit of the age. When footballers take the knee; or hospital staff clap out recovered Covid patients; or households under lockdown light candles in remembrance of Sarah Everard – it is with such ceremonies great and small that we dramatise something more important and enduring than our private wants, complaints and entitlements.
Reflection – as opposed to instant judgment – is a human practice in retreat. Yet the days leading up the prince’s funeral on Saturday at St George’s Chapel in Windsor are a rare opportunity to do just that: to reflect. In what we must all hope are the final months of the pandemic, this is a sombre moment to take stock, think deeply and tread lightly.
Death, as Saul Bellow wrote, is “the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything”. As we say farewell to a great servant of the nation and the Crown, we would do well to look in that mirror – and ask ourselves where we have come from, how we are doing, and where, above all, we are heading.