A great deal has changed since Prince Philip married the then Princess Elizabeth in 1947, but the most revealing shift concerns the Labour Party, whose parliamentary ranks contained more unrepentant republicans in 1947 than it does today. Not only are Labour’s republicans diminished in number, but their confidence has also waned.
While he was Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong republican, felt obliged to say that he had watched the Queen’s televised address on Christmas Day. The claim was unconvincing – he said he’d watched it “in the morning” when the speech is aired in the afternoon – but it is a testament to the political power and popularity of the British Crown that Corbyn felt he had to make the claim at all.
Even now, freed of both the job of leading the opposition and the Labour Party whip, the Islington North MP felt moved not only to send a message of condolence, but to delete an innocuous tweet on an unrelated subject that was posted after the announcement of Prince Philip’s death.
While British republicanism has long been a minority pursuit – historians are still uncertain about the extent to which the brief experiment with republicanism between 1649 and 1660 enjoyed popular support, and not just that of the elite and the army – it is undeniable that the cause enters the third decade of the 21st century in a considerably worse condition than it entered the third decade of the 20th.
It is not just a minority pursuit, but one that largely operates from a position of perpetual apology. In 2021 the British Crown enjoys a combination of unrestrained pomp and public popularity that no other European monarchy can match. Many – like the Danish-Greek dynasty from which Prince Philip originated – no longer exist, while others have been forced to shrink their estates and their grandeur to keep pace with changing public mores. While the other great dynasties have for the most part retreated, the House of Windsor remains supreme and seemingly unassailable.
That holds true even after a decade that could have been laboratory-designed to shake support for the British monarchy. Yet ten years of rising poverty and sustained assault on the size of the state have not dimmed public support for the Crown as an institution, or even for the elevated lifestyles of its members. When the Duke and Duchess of Sussex gave a critical interview to the American broadcaster Oprah Winfrey last month, they took particular care to praise the Queen despite their criticisms of the institution as a whole. As one Conservative MP observed to me at the time, the Sussexes’ line – “the company is bad but the CEO is great” – stretched credulity, but showed that the monarchy is, for the moment, sufficiently beloved by the British people to survive almost anything.
The popularity of the monarchy and its hold on median opinion were demonstrated in the immediate aftermath of Prince Philip’s death: the BBC and ITV tore up their existing schedules in order to air continuous tributes to the prince consort. The ubiquitous coverage attracted more than 100,000 complaints to the BBC, a record-breaking number, but privately many at the corporation admit that it is better to overestimate the British public’s appetite for tributes to the monarchy than to underestimate it.
Others go further, arguing that the complainants had their desire for alternative programming met both by the BBC’s own digital services and by Channel 4 and Netflix: the argument for publicly funded broadcasting is precisely its capacity to prioritise worthy but non-sensational news coverage in a crisis. But whether you agree with that view or not, the simple truth of contemporary British politics is that it is preferable to be overly deferential to the monarchy than the reverse – at least, if your priority is an easy life.
That is a testament to the skill of the woman who might well be the United Kingdom’s most successful politician of the past century: Queen Elizabeth II. The Crown’s popularity is the fruit of her strategy and the decisions she has taken over the nearly seven decades of her reign.
The Duke of Edinburgh’s death is what television producers like to call a “global news event” for two reasons. The first is that his record-breaking run as prince consort and his 99-year life make his death a historic event of global interest (Prince Philip was probably the most famous British man in the world). The second is that his death is a reminder that the remarkable reign of Elizabeth II is nearer its end than its beginning, too.
Politicians and broadcasters are inevitably weighing up their approach to the death of Prince Philip and the public reaction to it with one eye on how they will respond to the death of the sovereign. While the absence of a state funeral means that it is not quite the “full dress rehearsal”, as one civil servant put it to me, it is a stress-test for the party leaders and for civil society in how they will approach an event with no parallel in living memory, and one that will have an unpredictable and immeasurable impact on British public life.
The irony of these tributes and those yet to come is that the biggest achievement of Prince Philip’s life – that he leaves the British monarchy looking considerably more secure than he found it, and that in an ever-changing world the Crown has managed to modernise and survive – is largely neglected, because if more people had noticed it, it wouldn’t have been as effective. His greatest tributes are the bitten tongues and buttoned-up lips of even the country’s republicans, who will hope that they have a more successful time under the next consort than they did with this one.
This article appears in the 14 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Careless people