Letter from London: The Passing of Prince Philip

By Steven Mann

Editors’ Note: Our publication schedule did not let us release this tribute on the day of Prince Philip’s funeral, but we think that continued reflection and admiration of his life is fitting.

It’s more fitting to speak of the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing than of his death, and so evoke the sweep of his life and his considerable achievements instead of marking his end point. His achievements were indeed notable, most of all his steadfast support for the Queen: it’s hard to fight alone. That Elizabeth has managed to personify and unify the British nation over a disparate seven decades certainly had something to do with the support of her consort. He brought to this role an honorable military record: a graduate of the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth where he won awards as top cadet; combat naval service in World War II, with a Mention in Dispatches; and he only reluctantly left active duty in 1951 to help with royal affairs. One compensation: though he left active service as a Lieutenant Commander, he made Admiral of the Fleet in 1953 upon his wife’s rise to the throne.

Service to the nation
The Queen and Prince Philip together have represented a spirit of service for the public good that we need these in fissiparous times. A collective spirit has resurfaced during the pandemic, and the near-to-bursting strain on the National Health Service, added to lockdowns and economic devastation, has in modest part, evoked the shared sacrifice of the war years. My English wife and I felt this, as we Clapped for Carers on Thursday nights last spring, and as she sewed masks for teachers and helped relatives with shopping. Our streaming entertainment for months now has been cinema from the ’40s: Mrs. Miniver, Two Thousand Women, and the little-known classic, Went The Day Well? Government propaganda gave some of the best treats: London Can Take It!, Rationing in Britain, and the marvelous A Guide to Britain for Americans, starring the pre-Penguin Burgess Meredith, with an incandescent cameo by Bob Hope.

Royal troubles
But that was then. Despite its ethos of service, the Royal Family has been having a hard time. The lavish Netflix series, The Crown, with its sensationalized version of Royal history, has painted a tawdry picture. Fair enough, drama is drama, and the acting and sets are spectacular. Yet the series selectively distorts history to carry forward an indictment of those lofty people. No male in the series comes off well: Philip appears as a loutish adulterer, Winston Churchill is a sniveler, Charles turns from wimp to monster, and so on. The distaff side fares better, but still is the target of class-suffused japes. Only Princess Di treads an angelic path, but then she was an outsider to the Sandringham set.

Yet The Crown has a point. The burdens the Palace has borne come from the men in the family. Uncle Dickie Mountbatten planned the disastrous Dieppe raid, the bloodsoaked partition of India, and advised Charles on women; which takes us to Charles, with his epochal duplicity toward Diana; and Andrew, consort of sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein, who defended himself against an accusation of sex with a teenager in London by stating that he was at a children’s party in a Pizza Express in Woking. Maybe so, though we don’t commonly elbow into Royals at Costa Coffee, Gregg’s Pasties, or Pizza Express. Yet trumping them all now is Prince Harry. Harry was beloved of the nation. Now he’s thrown over official duties to make money among the trendy and the glam. Harry has channeled not Granddad Philip but great, great-uncle David, the abdicated Edward VIII.

In a country where being posh is a mortal sin, Harry was the bloke you would want to hoist a pint with down the pub. Friendly, hard-working, a roll-up-the-sleeves man, Harry threw himself into soldiering, graduating from Sandhurst and fighting his superiors to fight in Afghanistan. If ever a man was in his element, it was Harry with the troops. Returning from Afghanistan, and inspired by the US Warrior Games competition for wounded service members, Harry brought the idea back to the UK and founded the Invictus Games, while also traveling the world as a popular goodwill ambassador. No longer. He has stepped back from Royal service and from his beloved military titles.

No one can fault Harry et ux. for wanting to avoid the grind of ceremonial occasions. He would not be the first HRH to chafe at a lifetime of obligations. Yet there is something distasteful in the fact that the Markles seem unable to embark on their new, virtue-signaling life without gratuitously trashing the institution they left behind. Or on reflection, it may be a prerequisite: controversy sells. There is a portion of the British public that has warmed to their California life, though the divide is generational, with younger Brits finding a resonance in their views. The older generation, in contrast, takes a position on Meghan akin to Mary McCarthy’s epic takedown of Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ”

What next?
The Palace has detailed contingency plans for Royal funerals, all centering on the word “bridge,” suitably indicating the transition from life to afterlife, and also showing that the monarchy doesn’t end, but new individuals personify it. The code name for Prince Philip’s funeral is Operation Forth Bridge, appropriate for the Duke since that bridge is a World Heritage Site close by Edinburgh. Prince Charles’ contingency plan is Operation Menai Bridge (a suspension bridge in Wales). The pivotal moment will be when Operation London Bridge is announced and the nation bids farewell to the longest-serving monarch in English history.

The Queen’s oldest son will then take the throne as Charles III (one assumes he’ll take that regnal name, though he has the freedom to choose another, as did his grandfather). He faces an uphill climb in the eyes of the British public. Indeed, anyone following the Queen would be like one stumbling onto the stage after two hours’ spotlight on Lady Gaga. Charles, moreover, will ever be associated with his treatment of Diana. He has recovered somewhat over the years through his steady work and his devotion to green causes, organic farming, and youth charities, but his relentless quirkiness (homeopathy, anyone?) and his love of double-breasted blazers that scream “posh!” keep him at a distance from British affections. Polling reflects this. Charles and Camilla finish up the track among Royals, with approval ratings of 46% and 35% respectively. Prince William leads the results with a whopping 74% approval, eclipsing even Her Majesty, who polls 72%. Duchess Kate comes next at 66% — so there, Harry and Meghan. The woke Californians poll a meager 40% and 31% respectively. (Andrew, doomed to be a perpetual also-ran, is at 6%).

The advent of Charles III will mean new bank notes and new insignia on the Palace gates; senior lawyers will take the suffix KC instead of QC; and the national anthem will declare “God Save the King.” More substantially, Charles is expected to slim down the monarchy by limiting the number of “working royals.” And he can be counted on to continue a prominent advocacy for the environment. Will it be enough to preserve the monarchy in a secularizing, skeptical realm? In historical weight, his reign may be more important than his mother’s since he will face the continuing swell of UK separatism, fueled by a succession of thoughtless Tory leaders and capped by Brexit. However, those of us living in the United Kingdom can count ourselves fortunate to have lived in the times of Elizabeth II, and count ourselves hopeful, despite diminished expectations, for the prosperity of The Crown.

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