Duking It Out

Buckingham Palace announced today that HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, the longest-serving Royal consort in history, died in the early hours of the morning, just a few weeks before his hundredth birthday. There will be many of the Queen’s subjects who will believe that he did not make his century because of the vile conduct of his wretched grandson and the in-law from hell – and I would not disagree with that, God rot both of them.

Here’s what I wrote four years ago upon the occasion of his retirement from official Royal engagements around the Commonwealth in the autumn of 2017. He was ninety-six, which is thirty years past the average retirement age – or four-and-a-half decades past it, if you’re a French or Greek civil servant. A week or so after the announcement, on one of his final public engagements, some old soldier said to him he regretted the retirement. Prince Philip muttered, “I’ve done my bit”. The mathematician Michael Atiyah told him he wished he wasn’t standing down. The Duke replied, “Well, I can’t stand up much longer.” As it turned out, he outlasted the younger Sir Michael:

His Royal Highness is the Queen’s consort. That’s an ill-defined role prone to an accumulation of frustrations: for Americans, think First Lady or Vice President for life. A lot of consorts are unpopular with their spouse’s subjects (for example, Queen Rania, Jordan’s current Hashemite hottie). Prince Philip has been doing it longer than anyone in the history of the Royal Family, since the day in 1952 when he and Princess Elizabeth were at Treetops in Kenya and received the news that George VI (the King’s Speech guy) had died. Harry Truman was in the White House; Stalin was in the Kremlin; some fellow called Mao had just taken over in China. That’s a long time.

I last saw him five years ago in Glasgow with my daughter, who was impressed by how cool he was, and how spry for a nonagenarian. Elsewhere, opinions differ. He’s worshiped as a god in outlying parts of Vanuatu, but in Canberra the ruling Liberal Party went bananas and ended Tony Abbott’s premiership for giving the guy an Australian knighthood. Still and all, he’s kept the show on the road in an age hostile to the monarchical principle, and one which has seen the crowns of almost all his cousins come tumbling down throughout Europe.

Yet he’s still here. I chanced to dine at Buckingham Palace on the eve of the Australian referendum on whether to become a republic. On my transatlantic flight, having been holed up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire too long, I thought I ought to refresh myself on Court etiquette: it’s “Your Majesty” and “Your Royal Highness” on first greeting, followed by “Ma’am” and “Sir” subsequently. I was all on top of it and ready for my close-up, but made the mistake of taking a complicated phone call just before leaving my hotel and arrived at the Palace porte-cochère running a little late and somewhat distracted. The Duke of Edinburgh came toward me from across the room, and I stuck my hand out and barked, “Hi!”.

He took it well enough and muttered “Hi” in return (no exclamation) before handing me off to Princess Alexandra’s husband. It’s important to be able to adapt, and in the descent into a demotic age he’s mostly kept his footing, notwithstanding the occasional strain. “Can’t they switch his microphone off?” was his reaction to a long set by Elton John – although he is said, at a reception at the White House, to have found “that song about the bloody muskrats” – the Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love” – not without its charms. For a prince, he’s prone to loose lips — see today’s Daily Telegraph for a round-up of his greatest gaffes — and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, which is a handicap in the Royal biz.

At Buck House that night, we discussed the European Union. And all I can say, without betraying confidences, is that the events of the last year would not have dismayed those of us around the table that evening. Initially, I was unsure of how forcefully to disagree with His Highness, but The Hon Sir Angus Ogilvy, sitting next to me, kept goading me sotto voce: “Go on… He enjoys it.”

He did. As Diana Mosley said to me many years ago of the Duchess of Windsor, he “always returned the ball”. As a Canadian, I was somewhat distracted by the referendum Down Under, which I kept trying to slip into the conversation. But the Duke was inscrutable on that front – or perhaps, as I now think of it, quietly confident about victory. The Romanovs, the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns and his family’s own throne in Greece were long gone, but the House of Windsor endures, thanks in part to his sharp stewardship. The young Queen was shy and unconfident; he was shrewd, witty, widely read, and stoic about the frustrations of a manly man stuck as permanent second banana.

Toward the end of that night, as he walked us to the door before my carriage turned back into a pumpkin, I made an offhand remark contrasting the 1901 Aussie constitution with the 1867 Canadian one, and the subject evidently engaged him, because he launched into a remarkably well informed disquisition on the differences between the two: The Australian states are sovereign entities in a way the Canadian provinces are not, etc.

There were a half-dozen or so of us at dinner that night – an earl, a viscount, a baron, a knight, plus a plain old mister (me). All are now gone: Sir Angus (Alexandra’s hubby), Viscount Younger (former Defence Secretary), the Earl of Carnarvon (known to viewers of The Crown as “Porchy”, the Queen’s racing manager), Lord Blake (the great historian of the Tory Party), to whom I was presented by the Duke with the minimalist introduction: “Mr Steyn writes. Do you read?” Lord Blake averred that he did.

I’d assumed upon acceptance of my invitation that we guests would be there as unpaid jesters to amuse our Royal hosts. But, in fact, HRH was a quickwitted chap; we were hard put to keep up with him, and I would have to say he had the best lines of the night.

One of my fellow diners, bemoaning the lack of agricultural workers in Britain, explained that his farm now brought in young Australians and South Africans, who were able to make ninety-to-a-hundred quid a day (about £60,000 a year) picking onions.

“Crying all the way to the bank?” murmured the Duke, channeling Liberace.

I thought that was a rather good line.

~Rest in peace. As he said, he’d done his bit.

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