Did our preening prime minister, in a rare act of selflessness, choose not to attend the Duke of Edinburgh’s Covid-restricted funeral on Saturday, or was he gently encouraged to stay away? Who knows, but it is perhaps as well that he was not there, a magnet for the television cameras, for Prince Philip was everything Boris Johnson is not. Beyond a shared capacity for gaffes, the contrast between the two men could hardly be greater. Particularly now, when his government is mired in sleaze, Johnson’s presence in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, would have underscored just how far this country has fallen – morally and politically.
Whatever people may think of the monarchy as an institution, there has been a remarkably broad consensus in recent days about the virtues that Philip embodied: duty, loyalty, integrity, service, sacrifice, dignity, discipline and self-effacement. The Prime Minister is not readily associated with any of those qualities. Indeed he embodies a very different set of values: egotism, mendacity, divisiveness, disloyalty, faithlessness, avarice, ill-discipline and ruthless ambition. He is a character who lacks true character.
I’m being unfair, of course. Some of those differences are generational. Philip belonged to the so-called “Greatest Generation”, which fought in the Second World War, whereas Johnson is a typically self-indulgent, hedonistic “baby boomer”. But only a little unfair.
Philip believed in public service. He served with considerable courage and distinction in the Royal Navy during the war. Thereafter, as the Queen’s consort, he served his country for another seven decades until he finally retired from public duties at the age of 96. He dedicated his life to good causes. He was president, patron or an honorary member of nearly a thousand organisations. He carried out more than 22,000 solo engagements and countless more with his wife, the Queen. That involved great sacrifice – of his career, his freedom, his individuality.
Johnson has shown scant interest in serving anybody but himself. He performed no military service, though that is hardly his fault. But he has no record of good works either. He was never a scout. He did not do Voluntary Service Overseas, preferring to teach at Australia’s elite Geelong Grammar. Despite his Etonian education he has never obviously sought to help the underprivileged.
As mayor of London he undertook to give a fifth of his £250,000 annual columnist’s fee from the Daily Telegraph to charitable causes, but Sonia Purnell, his biographer, says there is no evidence of him having done so. His idea of a charity is one to fund the redecoration of his Downing Street flat. His idea of sacrifice is to give up his lucrative journalism for the relatively meagre prime ministerial salary of £161,401 – though he will doubtless cash in mightily after leaving office.
Prince Philip sought to bring people together. He believed in the Commonwealth and the Union. In 2011 he helped ease all manner of historic demons by accompanying the Queen on the first visit by a reigning British monarch to the Republic of Ireland since partition. The following year he was by his wife’s side when she met Martin McGuinness, by then Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister but previously a commander of the paramilitary organisation that assassinated his uncle Lord Mountbatten. In a remarkable tribute to Philip, Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein’s leader, apologised for that murder on Sunday.
By contrast, Johnson divides. For reasons of personal ambition, he championed the UK’s fraught withdrawal from the European Union. He negotiated a super-hard Brexit that could well destroy Scotland’s 314-year-old union with England. He has split Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, with potentially disastrous consequences for the Good Friday Agreement, and unravelled Britain’s rapprochement with Ireland. He has done nothing to reach out to the 16 million of his fellow citizens who opposed Brexit. Indeed he prospers electorally by demonising Remainers, continuing to pick damaging fights with the EU and fostering culture wars.
What Philip, a de facto immigrant to this country with strong Danish, Greek and German links, really thought of Brexit can only be guessed at. His was a genuine if understated patriotism, not the false, ostentatious, flag-waving patriotism of a cynical populist. His was a patriotism made manifest in deeds, not empty, headline-grabbing soundbites.
Philip was also a model of propriety – untainted by any hint of scandal. It is rumoured that he had an eye for beautiful women in his younger days, but he was the Queen’s “strength and stay” for 73 years.
That is not a description either of Johnson’s ex-wives would use. He is utterly amoral. He is devoid of principles, personal or political. He would not recognise an ethic if it slapped him in the face. He was sacked from the Times for fabricating quotes. He betrayed a succession of employers and party leaders. He is – or was – a serial adulterer and remains an incorrigible liar.
He is constantly beset by scandals, but simply shrugs them off. As mayor of London he channelled taxpayer money, and valuable places on trade missions, to his lover Jennifer Arcuri. He presides over a government that shamelessly awards lucrative contracts, jobs and peerages to cronies and donors. He seems to think that breaking the law is acceptable conduct. In 2019 he had to apologise to the Queen after requiring her to approve his unlawful proroguing of a parliament that threatened to thwart his hard Brexit plans.
Self-effacing to the last, Philip always played down his contribution to British life and wanted no eulogy delivered at his funeral. But in death he performed one last service. That sombre ceremony at Windsor Castle briefly united this fractured country if not in grief, then certainly in respect for the way he lived his life. As prime minister, Johnson was entitled to attend, but his presence would have tainted the occasion.