Always by her side – this was Prince Philip with the Queen on a visit to Helensburgh.
By Ruth Davidson, leader Conservatives in Scotland
“Grief is the price we pay for love”. Quoting Colin Murray Parkes, the Queen was speaking on behalf of the nation when she said those words 20 years ago. I cannot imagine what it is like to be married to someone for 73 years. I cannot imagine what it is like to have to get up and face every future day without that person, or what that absence feels like. The recognition of the enormity of such a loss is what has led many people over the past few days to look past the titles and the 41-gun salutes and have a sense of feeling on a human level for Her Majesty.
For most of us in the chamber, and for most people outside it, our picture of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh is of an elderly man. He was active, vigorous, gruff, witty and still able to stand ramrod straight, but, by the very fact of reaching the age of 99, a person has been of pensionable age for decades. Therefore, for my generation and those coming after, that dashing young naval officer in his 20s, the husband made consort at 30 and the palace moderniser intent on propelling post-war Britain to the front ranks in science, research, industry and technology exists only in Pathé news footage. Here was a man who was born before the discovery of penicillin, the creation of the United Nations and the invention of the television and jet engine but who was a moderniser in life as well as in work. How many men in the 1950s gave up their job for their wife’s career? How many headed the household, making the decisions and smoothing the way? How many walked behind their spouse or accepted that their children would never take their surname? As Barack Obama wrote,
“Prince Philip showed the world what it meant to be a supportive husband to a powerful woman.”
If all that he had done had been to undertake his vow at the coronation to be her “liege man of life and limb”, that would have been enough to have recorded his place in history, but it is clear that not only was he a man of huge practical ability—a decorated and talented naval officer, a qualified pilot and a natural sailor and horseman—but he had interests, passions and issues that he wanted to use his position to drive forward, and he focused on engineering, research, youth, the outdoors and conservation. In a life that could so easily have been about one shallow wave, a ribbon cut and a couple of public remarks before moving on to the next engagement, he demonstrated huge commitment to the organisations that he championed.
He served 64 years as the captain general of the Royal Marines; 61 years heading the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, which he created for young people; and 20 years as the president of WWF UK, which he helped to found, with a further 15 years as the international president of WWF. Here, in this city and in my constituency, he served 57 years as the chancellor of the University of Edinburgh. As former principal Timothy O’Shea remembers, although the duke was a huge supporter of the university’s academic excellence and was involved in opening buildings and conferring degrees, he was a particular supporter of the sometimes wild celebrations surrounding the installation of any new rector, giving Prof O’Shea into trouble when one such installation was too sedate for his liking.
His association with the city of Edinburgh stretched to patronage of more than 30 organisations including the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, the National Galleries of Scotland and the Royal British Legion. Of course, he was no stranger to Holyrood—both the palace and the Parliament—and he hosted numerous representatives from the latter in the former. At a reception for Pope Benedict’s visit, on seeing Iain Gray sporting a tie in the papal tartan, the duke turned to Tory leader Annabel Goldie to ask whether she had a pair of knickers made out of that. Quite properly, Annabel retorted, “I couldn’t possibly comment, and, even if I did, I couldn’t possibly exhibit them.” It is no wonder that, when asked to sum up his grandparents’ connection, Prince William said simply, “He makes her laugh.”
There has been tension in the coverage of the duke’s death—a sense of grappling with the positions that he held and the narrative of someone who could be irascible and could say the wrong thing—much of it coloured by people’s views on the institution of the monarchy. However, anyone who, in their life, fought in the second world war, set up an organisation to help young people build resilience and change the course of their lives for the better, helped to found the world’s largest conservation charity to save endangered species, gave of his time to help 800 individual charities and was still working well into his 90s deserves to have that life recognised.
As the Queen remarked on her golden wedding anniversary, “he is someone who doesn’t take easily to compliments”, so he would probably hate all the fuss. However, to have achieved all of that while undertaking his greatest job and duty of being partner, friend and confidant to the monarch for 73 years, always just two steps behind, supporting the Queen and being her strength and stay for all those years, reflects a life of remarkable public service. As an exiled prince, he came to Scotland as a boy, and his time here shaped the man that he would become. His relationship with Scotland endured and was woven into the service that he gave on behalf of the whole United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.
On behalf of my party, I support the motion of condolence on the life of service of His Royal Highness Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and I offer our sincere condolences to his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and to Her Majesty the Queen.
Top of page picture: Conservative leaders Ruth Davidson and Douglas Ross.