On Prince Philip’s passing

April 19, 2021 08:57
Prince Philip’s death marked the end of one of the longest tenures served by the Royal Consort in British history. Photo: Reuters

One would be living under a very, very large rock – to have missed Prince Philip’s passing last Friday. Husband to the Queen for seven decades, Philip’s death marked the end of one of the longest tenures served by the Royal Consort in British history.

The usual suspects in the media have not slacked off – clearly. One side has taken to adulating the man in its commemoration – portraying any and all criticisms and critiques of his legacy as inappropriate, and embellishing the Prince’s legacy with praise of all sorts, ranging from celebrating his ostensible devotion to wildlife preservation, to his sturdy and no-nonsense character, to his caustic – at times juvenile – sense of humour. On the other hand, others have jumped to castigating the Prince as an anachronistic relic, a fossil whose death has long been in waiting, and whose impacts on the world have been remarkably limited, if not detrimental. Allegations of ‘politicisation’ and ‘lackeys’ abound – perhaps this, indeed, is a most tragic indictment of the current media landscape in Britain and across the world.

It goes without saying that Philip’s legacy – as with most (99%?) public figures in general – is a mixed bag. He was by no means a charlatan or despot – he led an honourable life in many ways. For one, he had sought to serve his country (albeit for periods shorter than is oft-thought) during the Great War; for another, he had performed his royal duties diligently (attending over 22,000 events in a solo capacity); finally, he had served as the steeling anchor to the Royal Family, as the primary source of counsel and advice to the Queen. Philip led a life that was by no means as ignominious as that of his son’s, Prince Andrews; his masculinity and charm won over many who had felt otherwise alienated by the relatively aloof indifference of the rest of Buckingham Palace.

Yet what does baffle me, perhaps, is the extent to which commemorators have argued that his feats therefore outweigh his vices and flaws. The Prince made deeply bizarre, offensive, and – frankly – unbecoming remarks concerning individuals or groups ranging from the Chinese (“slitty-eyed”) to the Papua New Guineans (he quipped, to a student who had returned from trekking through the country, “You managed not to get eaten then?”). His infamous off-colour remarks were embedded with dated assumptions about groups and societies outside the white British high society – such as the “Do you still throw spears at each other?” aboriginals in Australia, or the residents of Cayman Islands who ostensibly “descended from pirates”.

Those who adorn the Royal Family are likely to laugh these quips off as part and parcel of the Family’s idiosyncrasies. Yet the Family need not be racist – the Queen, for one, has shown demonstrably more modern and compassionate views over the past decades; the recent furor over Meghan’s treatment, too, suggests that something has got to give in the political dynasty that has governed Britain for over half of a decade (technically, this is in reference to the Windsor-Mountbatten House only, as opposed to the British monarchy as an institution). The monarchy can and should evolve alongside the progress we have made in social mores and values. We have come leaps and bounds as a collective – surely, we can and should expect better from the family that nominally and ceremonially presides over the sprawling, ponderous Commonwealth of Nations.

When thinking about how we ought to appraise the moral legacy of deceased figures, I would posit that we must steer clear of two ‘meta-extremities’. The first is to identify “pros and cons” to the figure, and treat them as completely disparate lists, with the implicit assumption being that we ought to talk separately about the pros and the cons. Such an approach either shies away from offering a holistic assessment, or focusses – in a skewed fashion – on only the pros or only the cons.

On the other hand, there exists a potent tendency on the part of some to adopt an “aggregationist” approach – i.e. it’s all about adding up, subtracting, and weighing (almost quasi-numerically) the costs and benefits brought about a figure, and then coming up with a score that resembles an ‘exam score’ at large. In other words, we are to weigh Philip’s contributions towards education and environmentalism, against his endorsement and sponsoring of problematic views concerning race and gender. Yet such weighing makes no sense – either. How can we possibly weigh abstract, non-fungible entities such as the dignity of the British Empire’s denizens, with the symbolic significance of Prince Philip to the world?

None of this, to be clear, is to say that any holistic or comprehensive assessment of Philip’s legacy is therefore a non-starter. But what must be recognised here, is that we need a more nuanced and carefully calibrated system of language and discourse markers that enable us to draw robust conclusions concerning the nature of historically prominent individuals’ actions and characters. I have no ‘formula’ just yet – but we could perhaps look towards notions of moral constraints and baseline expectations concerning behaviours that cannot be trumped or superseded by considerations pertaining to the individual “bringing about more benefits than harms”. A victim of arson does not lose their right to complaint/compensation against the aronist even if their being burnt led to them writing a best-selling non-fiction book on arson.

Closer to home, it is also high time – though perhaps not currently the best – for us to rethink the value and legacy of the British monarchy. Hong Kong is not, and will never be a British colony from 1997 onwards – the zealous worshipping of the royalty of a faraway nation may chime in well with those who romanticise the bygone era of a bygone empire. Yet such reminiscing would do Hong Kong little, if any, good; the exaggeration and whitewashing of the colonial era, too, are deeply disrespectful towards victims under the colonial government, as well as empirically disingenuous. For all the fanfare and trumpet-tooting over the importance of preserving an unadulterated narrativisation of the city’s past, some Hongkongers sure are extraordinarily charitable when it comes to certain selective reinterpretations of the city’s history.

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is dead. But the debate over his legacy shall live on – at least, for many years to come.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review