CONFESSION TIME: I registered a complaint about the saturation coverage of Prince Philip ruining my television viewing, even though I possess neither a television nor a TV license. So at least one of the record 100,000 complaints registered with the BBC was fraudulent.
The worst part is, I don’t really care either way about the Mountbatten-Windsors: you can be a republican and a socialist without believing all the worst things about individual royals. It’s not the Royals themselves that annoy me, although I would rather hear less about their exploits (it’s like listening to stories about someone else’s child winning third prize at school sports). It’s the sycophancy surrounding them that rankles, particularly among those who otherwise seem so intent on waging an assault on “privilege”.
Consider, for example, the Guardian’s Gabi Hinsliff, whose column was titled “Standing behind his wife, Philip defined a different kind of masculine ideal”. The tagline begins, “It’s a stretch to call him a feminist icon but…”
Even considering the article in its entirety, it demonstrates the sort of deference to a powerful man that is supposedly out of fashion in an age of “woke” mores. And it bears little scrutiny. One of Phil’s biographers noted that “all the girls in his office have to be 36-24-36”. Another member of the household observed, “If an attractive girl comes into the room or there’s a particularly pretty girl wearing something striking in a line-up he’ll say ‘Mm!’ very appreciatively, though not [needless to say] in a way that makes you feel embarrassment for the Queen”.
The point is not to start a bandwagon for cancelling Philip, but rather to observe the operation of double standards. Rather often, it’s the right-wing and the conservative establishment who impose their own political correctness and their own “cancel culture” on the insufficiently fawning. And here the liberal elite plays along. Just as dead American Presidents are reclaimed as heroes regardless of their complicity in war crimes or racial segregation, so our own Royalty must be considered as culturally advanced (“for their day”) renaissance men regardless of their actual merits.
Or take that other hot button topic, race. Edinburgh University, where I received my doctorate, has issued its own fawning statement about its historic links to the Duke, and announced that it would hold a day of celebration for his legacy. It has also recently conducted an earnest debate about the university’s links to David Hume, after an (undoubtedly offensive and racist) footnote was observed in his work.
But Hume was a giant of the Enlightenment, whose ideas famously interrupted Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers” and thus form part of the lineage of the very concept of moral freedom. The ambivalence is well captured by Kenan Malik: “The Enlightenment was critical in the development of progressive social ideals. At the same time, European nations, through slavery and colonialism, denied these ideals to the majority of peoples across the globe. Many figures, Hume among them, stood on both sides of this equation, furnishing the intellectual tools with which to challenge injustice, but also often defending injustices.”
Hume, then, is someone who rightly deserves to be considered a contributor to the universal intellectual community. His links to Edinburgh should be commemorated, even if his views – which were also contested in his time – should be debated and sometimes condemned outright.
By contrast, filter out uncritical British deference and it’s difficult to conceive what Prince Philip contributes to the culture of critical scientific thought. His own racist “gaffes” (the biography I read has numerous chapters simply listing them) are products, less of mistaken eighteen century empiricism, and more of honking aristocratic obliviousness. Yet it becomes possible to imagine a world where David Hume Tower has been renamed Prince Philip Tower, in deference to contemporary mores.
Of course, on some corners of the internet, you’ll find those who abandon deference entirely. Adding together the Nazi lineage of other parts of the Mountbatten clan, together with that blooper reel of racially insensitive remarks, they conclude that Philip himself was a fascist. That’s false, partly because Philip fought the Nazis, and partly because there’s a crucial but nowadays sometimes forgotten distinction between a bloviator and a Roderick Spode.
Philip wasn’t even one of the more right-wing members of the Royal household. Indeed, his biography relates that at one stage he fell out with the Queen Mother, on account of his “leftist” views. His laundry list of “quips” thus appear more as ill-judged, twinkly-eyed efforts to narrow the social distance between the ceremonial head of a racially hierarchical Empire and his various subject peoples. As in almost all cases, the real problem is institutions more than individuals.
Philip is portrayed as a figure of the past, the nation’s grandfather. However, in other respects he appears as an astonishingly contemporary figure of the upper class – a cosmopolitan (Danish more than Greek) disruptor attempting to conceal his underlying contempt for the masses by mixing it with popular culture. He was neither a giant of the age nor a vicious fascist; in truth, he was a standard figure of the upper reaches of the British aristocracy. Commemorations or condemnations should take place in that spirit.