It is only with his death that Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is finally being accorded the recognition he deserves for what he achieved in an extraordinary life of service to this country, and, of course, steadfast support for the Queen.
Royal protocol requires that those who knew him best are only now able to share their memories, and we can take the full measure of the Duke’s achievements and qualities. And those who did see him in action at close quarters, who worked with him in the myriad causes and organisations he supported, testify to the passion and energy he brought to his roles. Fiercely intelligent, practical, curious, and driven, he wanted to get things done and make a difference, whenever he could, to causes that mattered. He did not suffer fools gladly, or timeservers, but did all he could to support those who, like him, had a passion for changing the world in practical ways for the better. Again, and again, we hear that he hated being ‘kowtowed to’; he wanted people to argue back, happy to defer to the stronger argument; and he was exceptionally modest, never wanting to take the credit himself.
We all know he could be tetchy and bad-tempered. Gyles Brandreth, his biographer and friend of 35 years, writes in the Telegraph that on being asked what his epitaph might be, the Duke looked him in the eye and said, ‘If the media have anything to do with it, a cantankerous old sod’. But far more often it was the Duke who was putting people at their ease, defusing tension, by cracking a joke – hence the legendary ‘gaffes’. When the Union Flag got stuck halfway as it was being lowered on Kenyan Independence Day, the Duke, who was representing the Queen, said to Kenyatta, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to change your mind?’ Kenyatta grinned and replied, ‘No’.
His traumatic childhood experiences would have finished off a lesser man, but trauma, self-pity and resentment were not the Duke’s style. He once said that at about the age of 16, he realised that since no-one else was going to look after him, he just had to ‘get on with it’ – and, so, he did, beginning with 5-years wartime service in the Royal Navy, in which he had a distinguished career. But more than anything else, it was the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme that encapsulated the values that guided him – independence, self-reliance, challenge, adventure, and service to others – and changed the lives of millions of young people round the world. How many politicians, or journalists, can claim as much?
There was a predictably mean-spirited tribute – or ‘view’ – from the Guardian, voicing the sentiments of those whose lives are motivated primarily by self-pity and resentment. But among many fine and heartfelt tributes, including from Boris Johnson, it was notable how many poured in from Australia – the governor general, the prime minister, and almost every former premier – usefully reminding us of who are real friends are in the world. Aussie premier Scott Morrison was pitch perfect when he said that the Duke ‘embodied a generation that we will never see again’. But perhaps Shakespeare said it best in King Lear: ‘The oldest hath borne most: we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long.’