The death of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, signals the end of an era in British national life. Prime Minister Boris Johnson likened his role to that of “the expert carriage driver that he was,” saying the Prince “helped to steer the royal family and the monarchy so that it remains an institution indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life.”
Yet the most fervent monarchist must realize that those days when the Crown played a pivotal role in the “balance and happiness” of British public life are in critical decline. It’s not just that actuarially, Elizabeth is nearing the end of her reign.
It might be historic — and even heroic — but the hard truth is that the monarchy has become an appendage in public affairs. Seen at the annual State Opening of Parliament, again for the Queen’s Christmas broadcast, and ubiquitously at the supermarket as one passes the tabloid press. Easily escapable for anyone not of royalist persuasions.
Yet the official funeral ceremonies for Philip, lasting until April 17 with a private service at St George’s Chapel within Windsor Castle, which the Queen and her Royal Consort called “home,” will be impossible even for anti-monarchists to avoid.
Buckingham Palace had not issued its press release within a half-hour when Twitter was awash with ire and invective. Such a reaction from a “love-based” left that prides itself on its “inclusivity and diversity” is, however repulsive, to be expected.
Yet the “Establishment” itself is no less culpable. The state broadcaster BBC offers a “complaints page” for those who take exception to “too much” coverage of the Duke’s demise.
Royal historian Richard Fitzwilliams calls it an “extraordinary” step, giving it a “special legitimacy” apart from regular BBC avenues for complaint. Quoted in the Telegraph, Mr. Fitzwilliams compares it to “some sort of bizarre alternative to the online book of condolence,” with the implication being that these “complaints have some form of official sanction.”
We need only pause to reflect that this lèse-majesté is happening in London. One can scarcely imagine what similar reactions are provoked throughout the Commonwealth. Yet if this is what the state broadcasting arm is doing for the Duke of Edinburgh, what is it going to do when Her Majesty expires?
Republicans, meantime, will be feeling their oats. Herself 94-years old, the Queen is slowly handing on many of her official duties to her likely successor, Prince Charles. Yet the Prince enjoys little of the respect and admiration afforded his mother.
Many still fault him for breaking his marital contract with Princess Diana. Animosity is being stirred up by his younger son, Prince Harry, who alleges his father stopped taking his calls once he stepped away from royal life and decamped to the American Coast.
The Palace did announce that the Duke of Sussex will attend his grandfather’s funeral next week-end. All families have their internal dissension. Yet the way Harry and his Duchess have been airing matters in public, it’s hard to expect that anything like a rapprochement can be realized soon, however much one hopes that reflecting on the life of Philip might put things in perspective.
As for the public, the hero of Brexit, Nigel Farage, reckons Britons “will not welcome Harry and Meghan back, even for the funeral.” This highlights a second front that the British monarchy must meet: disaffected conservatives. They sense that at least some members of the Royal Family are contemptible of traditional societal norms, so that dependable deference is no more.
Even politicking is in. When Princes Charles, William, or Harry speak out in favor of higher energy costs to combat climate change, or the “Great Reset” that will give the government ever more socio-economic power, even conservatives start to wonder what is the logic of the monarchy. In his inimitable manner, Prince Philip gave voice to these “deplorables.” Who speaks for them now?
To strike an optimistic note, one remembers George Orwell’s remark that when the intellectuals lose their heads, hope for sanity resides with the citizenry (riffing off the term “proletarian,” Orwell called them “proles’). It brings to mind what happened when the Queen Mother died in 2002.
Both Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair expected minimal public reaction. Yet long lines, of old and young, waiting to pay their respects outside the Hall where the Queen Mother lay in state, demonstrated otherwise. Travelling by limousine to the Hall , the Queen and Prince Philip were met by waves of public clapping, expressions of condolence and affection.
Whether Prince Philip’s funeral meets similar public support, given the limited opportunities due to Covid restrictions, is the question of the moment: no less for the monarchy, but for the continued existence of the Crown itself.