Social commentary

Why Prince Philip’s death moves us – by Jon Yates

On 17th April, they will put him in a box. And we will stop and slow and pay respects to a man we did not know.

They had put him in a box before, of course. A one year old refugee lying where fruit should have been, saved by a British warship, fleeing from home. He would not find another home until his marriage. Asked what language he spoke at home, he had replied, “What do you mean, ‘at home’?”

Without roots

We should not have known him. He did not seek our attention. But that marriage thrust it upon him. To a young woman he just called Lillibet. His father dead, his mother sectioned, his own birthday ‘corrected’ due to a changing of the calendar. He was a man without roots. A man at sea.

But Lilibet meant a home, a root to wrap around, a family. He would tell his mother-in-law, “Lilibet was the only thing in this world which is absolutely real to me.”

But why is this man real to us? We never knew him. His missed calls do not sit on your phone. His emails don’t wait in your inbox. He was never ‘about to pop round’.

The efficient and the dignified

The husband to another Elizabeth wondered the same. Walter Bagehot saw in the English constitution two parts – different in form and function. The first was the Commons, the Cabinet, the Prime Minister, the Civil Service. It’s job was ‘to govern’. Optimistically, he termed it ‘The Efficient’.

The Monarch was different. It was not part of ‘The Efficient’. No, Bagehot declared it, ‘The Dignified’. Its job was not to govern. It existed to ‘excite and preserve reverence’.

Reverence. Meaning “Profound, adoring, awed respect.”

Is this what we felt this week when we heard of Philip’s passing? I don’t think so.

Opinions and emotions

It may be how we feel about the Queen.

She is – to many of us – more than just a person. People have opinions. She does not. People have emotions. She does not. She sits apart from us and yet is in service to us. And for it, most of us revere her.

But this is not how we feel about Philip. He had opinions. He had emotions. And he showed them.

He said the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people. We heard him do it. He was impatient. He was rude.

Flawed and human

He told a 13 year old boy who wanted to visit space that he was “too fat to be an astronaut”.

He refused to stroke a koala bear while visiting Australia, “Oh no, I might catch some ghastly disease.”

He asked a Scottish driving instructor, “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?”

At the end of a royal visit to Belize, as the Queen thanked their hosts on the quayside, he was heard to shout from the deck of the Britannia, “Yak, yak, yak; come on get a move on”.

Even the secret service – presumably reasonably good at watching their words – couldn’t help note in their statement of his death that his visits were “never dull”.

No, Philip’s death does not move us because he was ‘The Dignified’. He was no blank canvas for us to project fears, hopes and aspirations onto. He was too flawed, too real and too human for that.

Sitting without him

And yet we – who knew him not at all – are moved. And I have wondered why. Until last night.

As I packed up at the end of day of work, my wife said to me, “I just keep thinking of her sitting there without him.”

It is not in reverence that we feel Philip’s passing. It is not in awe. It is nothing to do with Bagehot’s vision of The Dignified. The vision is much more human and simple.

It is a vision of a woman sitting alone. A woman sitting without the man whose failings and fortitude have stayed steady beside her for 73 years of life.

Dignified truth

We are moved by Philip’s death not because of a grand Dignified truth about the monarchy, but because of a small dignified truth about us all.

That we are human. That we need one another. And this man was – in the end – another’s Consort. And now, he’s gone.


Jon Yates has just written Fractured: why our societies are coming apart and how we can put them back together again (published June 10th and reviewed on G+T soon). I recommend signing up to his blog Fractured Thoughts

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