The Duke of Edinburgh deserves to be better understood, says his long-time friend and admirer, Gyles Brandreth. In this unprecedented and candid interview, Prince Philip seeks to dispel the myths that surround his family - and reveals how he has coped with his unique role in our nation's life
THE other evening some friends came to supper, professional people in their thirties and forties, fair-minded representatives of middle England. I asked them what they thought of the Duke of Edinburgh. I wanted instant judgments, immediate responses. I got them. "Bit of a reactionary." "Short-tempered." "Rude." "Selfish." "Doesn't like his son." "Traditionalist." "Bully." "Looks good." "Loyal to Queen."
He is certainly good-looking and, for a man who will be 78 next month, remarkably fit and trim. And it's something that at least one of my kitchen-table pundits registered his unswerving loyalty to the sovereign. But the rest of it? Is that the general perception? Is that the verdict of Blair's Britain? If it is, they've got him wrong.
I am an admirer of the Duke of Edinburgh. I first met him in the 1970s when I became involved in one of his pet charities (the National Playing Fields Association) and over 20 years I have seen him in action at close quarters. I like and respect him. I like his style, his sense of humour, his hands-on approach, his ability to make a difference while others, mostly, only make a noise. I envy his energy. I admire his achievement. I think he deserves to be better understood.
With this in mind I contacted Prince Philip's office explaining that I wanted to write an article about him and wondering whether he would consider giving me a brief interview as part of the piece. Word came back that His Royal Highness would be happy to grant me an interview.
We met in his library at Buckingham Palace. It is a large room with a workmanlike feel, airy, ordered, user-friendly, serviceable not cosy. There are some 10,650 books on the shelves, all carefully arranged and catalogued. (The collection is both predictable and surprising: more than a thousand books on wildlife and conservation, 494 on sport, a complete run of cartoon annuals by Giles, more than 200 volumes of poetry, 990 books on art.)
I explained to the Duke that my aim was to write something celebratory, saluting his achievements over half a century of public service and challenging one or two of the myths that have grown up over the years. He looked at me a little doubtfully and said nothing.
We were alone. We sat on firm sofas facing one another. I produced my notebook. "How do you think you're seen?"
He frowned. "I don't know." Pause. "Refugee husband, I suppose." Yes, the Greek who married the Queen.
"And your achievements?" I asked. He snorted. He spread his hands across the sofa and sighed. Stupid question. Where do you begin? The man is Colonel or Colonel-in-Chief, Field Marshal, Admiral, Air Commodore, 42 times over. He is founder, fellow, patron, president, chairman, member of at least 837 organisations.
The first achievement is simply to have endured, to have survived - to have put up with - 52 years of royal flummery, official mumbo-jumbo, parades, processions, receiving lines, receptions, lunches, dinners, upwards of 20,000 official engagements. He has measured out his life in handshakes and small talk. And to keep his sanity, alongside all the surface stuff (necessary, unavoidable), he has got stuck into a range of particular projects where in-depth involvement has (I hope) given him the satisfaction of a worthwhile job well done.
Having a natural conversation with a senior member of the royal family is next to impossible. ("When royalty leaves the room," said Joyce Grenfell's mother, "it is like getting a seed out of your tooth.") I said to the Duke, to set the ball rolling, "I've made a list of achievements - and myths - half a dozen of each." I read out my list of "achievements".
First: Supporting the Queen. A good start. He smiled. That's what it's all been about. "Absolutely."
Second: The Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme. Started from scratch in 1956, the concept has spread to 50 countries. Some two-and-a-half-million young people have taken part. In my book (and in terms of a legacy) this is the Great Achievement, both because of its impact and because the qualities the Award encourages - self-reliance, compassion, fitness, skill, endeavour - are among those Prince Philip values most. (The night after our interview I watched an episode of Hornblower on television and there were the virtues heroically exemplified: decency, daring, courtesy, comradeship, kindness, loyalty, courage. There are not many novelists represented on the Duke's shelves, but C. S. Forester is one of them.)
Third: The International Equestrian Federation. Outside the horsey world, this means nothing, but I put it on the list because the Duke was its active (some felt hyper-active) President for 22 years. He introduced international rules for carriage-driving, long-distance riding and vaulting; he added international competitions for Pony, Juniors and Young Riders; he steered the veterinary committee; he ran the show. (Six hundred books on matters equestrian, including two by HRH.)
Fourth: The World Wide Fund for Nature. Ornithology has been a lifelong enthusiasm (781 books on birds), but his involvement with WWF (UK President since 1961, International President from 1981, President Emeritus since 1996) has seen his interest in wildlife broaden from a commitment to the conservation of natural habitats to a passionate and tireless championing of global environmental issues.
Fifth: The Commonwealth Study Conferences. The Duke initiated these. They happen every six years. The first was in 1956: a three-week international conference on work and the changing demands of industrial society. Each Conference is an opportunity to take a big issue, examine it, worry it, look at it in depth and from difference perspectives. Last year it was in Canada: two weeks on the impact of technology in a global "infodustrial" society.
Sixth: Fund-raiser, fire-fighter, problem-solver. Having chaired one of his charities, and seen him at work with others (the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Society of Arts, the English Speaking Union, Shakespeare's Globe at Southwark, the Central Council for Physical Recreation) I know him to be an unrivalled fund-raiser (focused and fearless) and a persuasive leader with an unnerving eye for detail (and for flim-flam and flannel). He is at his best when given a problem to solve, a difficult meeting to chair, an internal row requiring resolution. (He likes to be given something specific to do. He welcomes detail. I accompanied him to the opening of a youth centre on Merseyside. His lengthy debriefing note to me was devoted to how best to relocate the lavatories and showers so as to maximise the space available for the sports facilities.)
Having read out my shortlist of "achievements", I hoped he might add to it, put me right in certain areas, prioritise. He didn't. He was anxious to give credit to others (John Hunt as the first director of the Award Scheme, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands for getting him on board at WWF). He was evidently pleased that the Commonwealth Study Conferences were on the list, ready to concede that the Award Scheme was probably the achievement that had widest impact, but not willing to be drawn on the area that had given him greatest personal satisfaction. "That would be invidious."
(Later, when I asked him about the most impressive people he had met, he began, "Oh goodness. . . Bob Menzies [Australian Prime Minister, 1939-41, 1949-66], Vincent Massey, the Governor-General of Canada [1952-59] . . . " and then stopped: "No, no, a list would be invidious." He has to watch what he says because there's always a come-back. I asked him if there were countries he hadn't visited that he'd like to. "If I name them, they might invite me and then, if I couldn't make it, there'd be trouble.")
Achievements listed, silence fell. His eyes narrowed. "What about these myths then?"
I looked at my notebook. "First, that it's been a life of frustration, that you've always regretted that you weren't able to pursue your naval career. . . "
Now he interrupts. "In 1947 [the year of his marriage] I thought I was going to have a career in the Navy, but it became obvious there was no hope. The Royal Family then was just the King and the Queen and the two Princesses. The only other male member was the Duke of Gloucester. There was no choice. It just happened.'
"In at the deep end?"
"Yes." He laughs. "The first 10 years I don't remember much about."
His friend Lord Lewin (First Sea Lord in 1977, Chief of the Defence Staff at the time of the Falklands) used to say that if the Duke had stayed in the Navy he would have gone right to the top.
"No," says the Duke firmly. "Given the way of the British press, I wouldn't have got very far. Every promotion would have been seen as me being treated as a special case."
He has fond - and vivid - memories of his time in the service: as a midshipman with Lewin on HMS Valiant during the war; as First Lieutenant of HMS Chequers, the Leader of the 1st Destroyer Flotilla in the Mediterranean Fleet at Malta in the late 1940s; ultimately, 1950-51, "two very satisfying years", in command of the frigate Magpie (the men called their captain "Dukey"). "The late King died in February 1952 and that effectively brought my naval career to an end." But he won't accept that he's disappointed. "You have to make compromises. That's life. I accepted it. I tried to make the best of it."
"When King George died, did you know what to expect?"
"No. There were plenty of people telling me what not to do. 'You mustn't interfere with this.' 'Keep out.' I had to try to support the Queen as best I could, without getting in the way. The difficulty was to find things that might be useful."
"But there was the example of the Prince Consort, you'd read biographies. . . "
"Oh, yes." A slightly exasperated sigh. "The Prince Consort. . . The Prince Consort's position was quite different. Queen Victoria was an executive sovereign, following in a long line of executive sovereigns. The Prince Consort was effectively Victoria's private secretary. But after Victoria the monarchy changed. It became an institution. I had to fit into the institution. I had to avoid getting at cross-purposes, usurping others' authority.
"In most cases that was no problem. I did my own thing. Got involved in organisations where I thought I could be useful. The Federation of London Boys' Clubs, the Royal Yachting Association, the MCC. Of course, as long as they were going all right, there wasn't much for me to do. But if an organisation was going bankrupt or had some crisis, then I'd help. The fund-raising never stops."
"Has much of it been fun?"
A puzzled look. "I don't think I think very much about 'fun'. The Variety Club events were fun. The cricket matches for the Playing Fields were fun. The polo was entirely fun!"
I said, "The second myth is that you're a stick-in-the mud, old-fashioned. In fact, I think you're a moderniser. . ."
A more explosive interruption. "No, no, not for the sake of modernising, not for the sake of buggering about with things. I'm anxious to get things done."
"Weren't you the first member of the Royal Family to use a helicopter?"
"Yes, in the run-up to the Coronation. It was just more practical but it caused a ruckus. I didn't go through the proper channels. There was a lot of pettifogging bureaucracy."
How had he got on with the old guard at the Palace in the 1950s? A wry smile. "I introduced a Footman Training Programme. The old boys here hadn't had anything quite like it before. They expected the footmen just to keep on coming. We had an Organisation and Methods Review. I tried to make improvements - without unhinging things."
Was he the prime mover behind the Way Ahead Group, the regular planning/ policy get-together of senior members of the Royal Family? "No, but it's sensible, necessary. We've got to think about what's going to happen next: the millennium, the impact of devolution, the Queen's Jubilee in 2002. And we have to co-ordinate. Don't forget, at the beginning of the Queen's reign there were just one or two of us doing things, but then the children grew up and instead of one or two we had 10 or 12. People were tripping over one another. We got them to specialise in their interests. Charles went off to the arts, Anne went off to prisons. It's about an efficient use of resources."
Though he does not say so, I imagine he takes a special pride in having a noticeably lean and cost-effective private office. He takes a professional interest in science and technology (the creation of the National Fellowship in Engineering is another unacknowledged achievement), and what he espouses in public he carries through in private. He pioneered the use of Information Technology at the Palace, and introduced an eco-friendly electric taxi to the royal car pool. He was the first in the Family Firm to take to producing his own correspondence on his own word processor; he understands the Internet, its potential and its dangers.
The next myth, I suggest, is that he is curmudgeonly.
He looks quite hurt. "I don't think I have ever got up to make a speech of any kind, anywhere, ever, and not made the audience laugh at least once. You arrive somewhere and you go down that receiving line. I get two or three of them to laugh. Always."
This is true. I have seen it happen, time and again. Meeting royalty isn't easy. For most people, it's an awkward moment, unreal, exciting but oddly nerve-racking. Prince Philip makes a crack to break the ice. Nobody does it better. But Michael Seward, canon treasurer at St Paul's Cathedral, complains about the Duke's manner: "You never know if it will be a snort, a snub or a merry laugh." The canon misunderstands. It's only ever banter. The Duke has no desire to hurt. He merely wants to please, but he knows he has to say something - always - because if he stays silent that will be interpreted as his being surly. He can't win.
From my limited experience as a Member of Parliament I would say that one of the most wearisome aspects of public life is having to be genial all the time. If you are the Queen's consort you will not remember everyone you meet, but everybody you meet will remember you, and how you seem, and what you say. "Occasionally I get fed up, going to visit a factory, when I am being shown around by the chairman, who clearly hasn't got a clue, and I try to get hold of the factory manager but I can't because the chairman wants to make sure he's the one in all the photographs."
I please the Duke (I think) by saying what I believe: "You've got a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, but in fact you've been suffering fools willingly for over 50 years.'
He is grinning broadly now. "I have suffered fools . . . with . . . patience."
This reputation for curmudgeonliness also comes about because, in conversation, he is deliberately challenging. He questions, he argues, he plays devil's advocate, he answers back. He does it to show an interest and (I believe) to maintain his own interest.
When you meet scores of people in a day (and some days he meets hundreds) it would be very easy to let everything that is said wash over you. However, briefly, the Duke tries to become engaged in whatever he is doing. He has an enquiring mind. "I haven't looked at it before, but yes, I suppose I challenge things to stimulate myself and to be stimulating. You don't have to agree with everyone all the time."
I think his manner with people is delightful and the more ordinary the people the friendlier he is. I suggest to him that long before Diana had come onto the scene as the unstuffy tactile people-friendly princess, he had been the true pioneer of royal informality. I remember, years ago, coming down the back stairs with him after some lunchtime function in the West End. We passed the kitchen. He stopped, turned back and marched in, unannounced, to meet the chefs and dish-washers. There was laughter, back-slapping, joshing, a peerless display of "people skills" and unselfconscious charm.
He smiles. "Yes, yes, but. . . You won't remember this, but in the first years of the Queen's reign, the level of adulation - you wouldn't believe it. You really wouldn't. It could have been corroding. It would have been very easy to play to the gallery, but I took a conscious decision not to do that. Safer not to be too popular. You can't fall too far."
He is suddenly full of energy, leaning forward, peering over my notebook. "What's next? 'Tactless overseas.' " Is that on your list?"
I glance down at my notes and see the words "slitty eyes".
On October 16, 1986, in Beijing, when the Queen and the Duke were on a state visit to China, Prince Philip met a group of British students studying at the North West University in Xian. The Duke was particularly interested in the students because they came from Edinburgh University (he has been Chancellor of four universities: Edinburgh since 1952) and, chatting to them informally (with neither Chinese nor press present), he expressed surprise when he discovered that they were spending a whole year in China - long enough "to go native and come home slit-eyed". It was a joke, a bit of badinage, but because one of the students later gave a friendly account of the conversation to a journalist, an inconsequential private aside was turned into banner headlines around the world.
"The great wally of China," said The Mirror; "The Duke gets it wong" said The Sun. As well as depicting the Duke as accident-prone, there was the unpleasant implication that he was some kind of closet racist. (He may not be a disciple of all that is politically correct, but there is not an ounce of racism in him. I was once with him at a private party where I overheard him stopping someone mid-sentence because they were attempting to tell a joke with racial overtones.)
Since 1952, on behalf of the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and the range of causes he supports, he has taken part in 586 overseas visits to 137 different countries. Looking through the newspaper cuttings, and having had access to some of the obituaries ready and waiting on file, I find it is the two or three alleged gaffes - in China, in Brunei, most recently apparently nodding off at a state banquet in South Korea - that command the coverage. "Now," he says wearily, "I am desperate if I find there are British press on a foreign visit. I know they'll wreck the thing if they possibly can."
It is not a myth to say that Prince Philip has reservations about certain sections of the media. What exasperates him is that "so much coverage is so unremittingly negative". When did it all start to go wrong? "After Murdoch bought the Today newspaper, founded by Eddie Shah. Day after day there was a derogatory story about one member of the family or another."
Clearly it rankles. I also think it hurts. We don't discuss this, but I know that, over the years, he has been distressed by stories of his allegedly colourful love life. Newspapers and magazines around the globe repeat unsubstantiated tittle-tattle and get away with it because what, realistically, can he do about it? Suing isn't the answer: it's ponderous, expensive, and gives more coverage to the libel. I think he sees one solution as some form of complaints tribunal: authors would be required to satisfy the tribunal that there was sufficient acceptable evidence to prove the truth of their statements.
To the outside world, he shrugs it off: being gossiped about is the price paid for life in the limelight. Privately, I believe he finds it frustrating and upsetting. (And, of course, he is aware that he is not the only victim. As I write I am looking at the cover of a best-selling Australian magazine that I know he has seen too. It boasts the low-down on "Philip's torrid sex life". Inside are nine pages of fantasy presented as fact: "Philip's affair with Katie Boyle was very steamy. They had the most extraordinary times together." Because I know Katie Boyle, I call her. "Yes, I've met Prince Philip several times. I think he's the most fantastic man. I love his dryness. But an affair? It's ludicrous, pure fabrication. When it appears in print, people believe it. You can't take legal action because it fans the flames, so you just have to accept people telling complete lies about you. It's hateful.")
Prince Philip has no special fondness for tabloid journalists, but he claims it's a myth that he is unfriendly towards photographers. "I go out of my way to line people up for the photographers, to make sure everyone in the group is in the picture, to make sure the photographers have got the shot they need." A laugh. "Of course, they always want one more. They're never satisfied."
I suggest that some of the problems with the press are of his making. He was the one who first spoke to the press, who made the first TV programme, who gave the first interview. "Yes, I made a conscious decision to talk to the media - but not about me, only about what I'm doing, what I'm supporting."
"The trouble is," I venture, "talk about the Commonwealth Study Conferences and after three lines people are yawning. They want what's sexy, they want personalities."
"The press have turned us into a soap opera," he declares. There is something despairing about his laugh. He glances at my notebook. "Any more?"
"Diana." I stare down at the pad. "The public view, for what it's worth, is of a grouchy old man, unsympathetic to his daughter-in-law." I pause and look up. "But I happen to know - not from you, but I know it - that when things were difficult you wrote to Diana: kind letters, concerned, fatherly, loving, caring letters from Pa, explaining how you knew, first hand, the difficulties involved in marrying into the Royal Family."
He smiles. I say, "The impression the public have got is unfair."
He shrugs. "I've just got to live with it. It happens to a lot of people."
"And Sarah? There's a knee-jerk reaction out there that if the Duchess of York isn't being treated generously, somehow you're behind it."
He shakes his head. "I try to keep out of these things as much as possible." He pulls a face. "Her behaviour was a bit odd." A sigh. "But I'm not vindictive. I am not vindictive. . . I don't see her because I don't see much point. But the children come and stay. Our children come and stay. The atmosphere is very happy. We are a happy family."
"And what about being at odds with Prince Charles? People say how different you are. I think you are remarkably similar, in mannerisms, in interests. . ."
A final interruption. "Yes, but with one great difference." Pause. "He's a Romantic, and I'm a pragmatist. That means we do see things differently." Another pause. "And because I don't see things as a Romantic would, I'm unfeeling." Another laugh. Another shrug.
The Duke of Edinburgh is far from unfeeling. He cares about his children and his grandchildren. He cares about his wife. He cares for her. (A friend said to me, "I was quite touched to overhear the Queen and Prince Philip calling one another 'darling'.") He has given over his life to supporting her in the role destiny threw her way.
From those who know him and work with him, the Duke of Edinburgh inspires loyalty and love. Perhaps he has mellowed in his sixties and seventies, but I just don't recognise him in the commonly accepted caricature. He is tolerant, kindly, amusing, amused. He is in several ways a man's man of his generation. He is straightforward, unsentimental, scrupulously honest. He mixes a matchless gin and tonic and I imagine his own list of personal achievements would include his 6,000 hours of pilot's flying time.
He is practical. The conversion of the chapel to the picture gallery at Buckingham Palace is his doing. He has built log cabins at Sandringham and demolished the dry-rotten Victorian addition to Abergeldie Castle at Balmoral.
But he is also creative. He has planted avenues of trees, created water gardens, laid out borders and beds. He loves painting. He reads poetry. He is fascinated by nature and by religion. (There are 634 books on religion on his shelves. "Yes, I take an interest in comparative religion, but if I talk about it I'm labelled a religious crank." And he is a pragmatist: he has used his relationship with religious leaders around the world to recruit them to the cause of conservation.)
To me he seems to be a quite remarkable man, dealt a bizarre hand which he has played pretty flawlessly. "I am not going to write an autobiography," he says. "I don't spend a lot of time looking back."
What does he think the future holds? Where does he see the monarchy 50 years down the road? "I'm not going to be drawn into speculating on that. All I'll say is that I've tried to help keep it going while I've been here."
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23 September 1998: [News] Prince composes his own prayer for friend's book
19 December 1996: [News] Prince sparks Dunblane fury