The Man who saved the firm

The Duke of Edinburgh’s genius was to ensure that the more the Royal family changed, the more it appeared to remain the same

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Amid all the justified tributes paid to the Duke of Edinburgh after his death on 9 April there seemed little or no recognition of one crucial point about him. It was accepted that, once he had found his feet as consort, he brought much influence and common sense to bear on the nature and conduct of the Royal family. What is perhaps less appreciated is that he did so in a spirit of constructive conservatism — he tried to initiate change in order to preserve what was best about the institution that he nicknamed “The Firm”.

This made him highly unusual in his time: for it is only when we recall the context in which the Duke had to operate when he was in the prime of life, and at the zenith of his reforming capabilities, that we start to understand just what a wise man he was.

In the mid-1960s the Queen’s workload was at its height. The Mountbatten-Windsors’ family was complete, with the Earl of Wessex (who now succeeds his father as Duke of Edinburgh) being born in 1964. But this left the Queen, with a heavy schedule of domestic and overseas engagements, having to concentrate on her ceremonial and constitutional duties, while the question of business management became mainly the concern of her husband. In the 1950s, when Her Majesty was still young and inexperienced, her court had been criticised for its attitudes and practices, most of them unchanged since her grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s day, and many of which would have been familiar to Queen Victoria. 

She herself, though a young woman, was described as dowdy; and, out of a protective spirit, many courtiers who had served her father (and indeed a few who had served her grandfather, who died only 16 years before she ascended the Throne) put a human shield around her that sought to entrench things as they were, and to ensure that things were done in the manner in which they had always been done. The instability of Edward VIII’s brief court was never far from the minds of courtiers such as Tommy Lascelles.

The Duke of Edinburgh, who had been forced to retire from the Royal Navy on the Queen’s accession so he could support her properly, found himself marginalised and excluded. He had no constitutional position, and it is far from clear he ever sought one. He did, however, wish to be regarded by the Queen’s courtiers as more than (as he once termed himself) a “bloody amoeba”, and to have some input into the The Firm of which he was, after all, an integral part. 

The film was, again, evidence that the Duke was opening up his family in order to help preserve its constitutional role

However, matters got worse before they got better: in 1955, just three years into her reign, the Queen found herself effectively forced to forbid her own sister, Princess Margaret, to marry the divorced RAF officer with whom she had fallen in love. It wasn’t the last example of the bourgeois morality that the Royal family felt it necessary to inflict upon itself, but it was one of the worst.

But then changes came slowly. In 1958 the tradition of 18-year old girls of a certain class being presented at court — “coming out” into the marriage market of rich and often thick young men — was ended. The Duke had his way in 1960 when he ensured the family surname included his own; and he started to think of ways to make the monarchy’s existence more like the lives of some of the Queen’s subjects, an exercise that culminated in the landmark Royal Family film of 1969. 

What came across was that his natural ebullience and charisma meant the Duke was a born television star; Her Majesty, doubtless conscious of the need not to let too much daylight in upon the magic, appeared less at ease. It is apparently down to the Queen that the film has not been shown on television again; but at the time it was a public relations success, and won the Royal family a sense of goodwill that lasted for years.

It was, again, evidence that the Duke was opening up his family to inspection by the public mainly in order to help preserve its constitutional role. He transmitted to the younger generation his awareness that The Firm retains its place in our national life by consent only. One or two of his descendants have occasionally forgotten that dictum at their peril.

But the Duke could have done it so differently, and inadvertently so destructively. Think, again, of the times. In 1964 Harold Wilson was elected on a programme of ushering in “the white heat of the technological revolution”, and of modernising Britain largely through making it physically and socially unrecognisable, as if denying it was an old country.

Nor was this just a party political problem: the election of Edward Heath in 1970 meant that for over a decade, until Wilson and Heath between them had put the country in the tank, a bipartisan attack was made on the past which was supposed to account for the failures of the present. Both men treated the old ruling class with barely-disguised contempt. Wilson proposed, and Heath connived in, a plan to reform the House of Lords that would have made it the puppet of the whips in the House of Commons: it took a combination of Enoch Powell and Michael Foot to defeat it.

The Duke instinctively understood that Britain is an old country and its people are inherently conservative

The liberalisation of divorce, abortion, homosexuality, the penal code and the age of majority transformed British society. In the absence of rigorous planning laws Georgian and Victorian town centres were ripped apart and the communities that enjoyed them had their homes destroyed too, so that they might enjoy tower block living. Heath sought to end British sovereignty and eradicated various thousand-year old counties from the map of Great Britain — no emblem of the continuity was sacred. It was the age of the sink comprehensive school, and all that entailed. Even the currency was changed and an attempt — so far unsuccessful — to metricate completely our weights and measures was launched. Profoundly destabilising, the changes were a misdiagnosis of decline with remedies badly executed even on their own terms.

This is the opposite of what the Duke (who loved technological advances as much as the next jet age man) did. He could so easily have resented the institution into which he had married, not least after the patronising way in which its flunkeys treated him early on, and disrupted it just through churlishness. But he instinctively understood this: that Britain is an old country and its people are inherently conservative. 

The monarchy, in its dignity and ceremonial function, appeals to the British people because it makes them feel good about their history, and feel that in that respect alone it is the envy of the world. And one suspects the late Duke took one look at the incrementally disgusting politicians who were vomited up over the decades to form Her Majesty’s governments; and regarding the Queen said to himself, to quote Philip Larkin, “what a treat to look at you.”

They brought in the walkabouts, sacrificed the royal yacht, started to pay taxes and began to travel by scheduled train. All this brought them closer to the people, but they never compromised the mystique. The late Duke’s genius was to ensure that the more things changed, they more they stayed the same: and the people loved him for it.

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