I woke up this morning to the sound of a military band playing the national anthem and gathered that this was in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh’s 99th birthday. How bizarre is that? It happens every year and the same happens on the birthdays of other members of the Royal family. The oddity of the ritual never ceases to astonish me. I commented in an earlier blog on the eccentricity, to put it politely, of a supposedly ‘national’ anthem whose exclusive focus lies on a single individual. Its plea to the deity to enable her ‘long to reign over us’ has clearly been met by the Queen’s 68 year reign, but carrying on earnestly praying for her to live long into the future now she is 94 seems to be pushing it where both optimism and the powers of the deity are concerned. But leaving the anthem itself aside, heralding the Duke’s birthday by playing his wife’s tune, and thereby further erasing his individual identity, is going too far.
The Duke of Edinburgh seems to me to deserve a lot better. He is not responsible for the supreme social inequity of inherited wealth and privilege that inclines some of us to republicanism. He may have been prone to the odd faux pas over the years, but he has performed an exceptionally unenviable subordinate role to the Queen with great diligence for almost all of what must have seemed 68 very long years. Whether precisely accurate as to the detail or not, the television series The Crown has, I suspect, conveyed a fairly accurate idea of some of the difficulties of his position.
The 1995 Royal Visit to Natal in 1995 coincided with a fund-raising visit Brenda had to make to the United States, so it fell on me to spend a couple of hours showing him round the Howard College campus of the University of Natal, and then to attend an evening reception on the royal yacht Britannia, where I spent some further time chatting to him. I found him very engaging and easy to talk to, and he was clearly genuinely interested in, and asked penetrating questions about, the exhibitions we had mounted for him, for what must have been his umpteen hundredth visit to a university campus over the course of the more than forty years during which he had by then been performing the role. He even managed to refrain from commenting on the fact that the Union Jack that had been brought out of mothballs for his visit was inadvertently being flown upside down on the University’s flag-pole in his honour. Not being practised in such matters, I hadn’t noticed; I am sure he would have.
The last two or three years have succeeding in shredding the credibility of our version of ‘democracy’ as a political system. It has landed us with a government that has mishandled the Covid-19 pandemic so hopelessly badly that an OECD analysis shows that our economy is on track to be the worst affected of all the world’s major economies, with a probable slump in 2020 of over 11%. That is without taking any account of the rapidly approaching economic insanity of a probable ‘no deal’ with the EU at the end of the transition period. Our Brexiteer cabinet couldn’t be trusted to run a Sunday school picnic without losing half the children and leaving the rest with food poisoning. A marginally different version of democracy has landed the United States with the execrable Donald Trump. I wouldn’t advocate it, but in a crisis like this a return to monarchy right now could only be an improvement. Any one of our monarch’s combination of experience, wisdom and intelligence would be extremely welcome. But if the Duke of Edinburgh makes it to his hundredth birthday, as I’m sure we all hope he will, could someone please make sure that the BBC has the decency and tact to get the military band to play a simple ‘Happy Birthday to you’ for him instead of playing his wife’s tune as she passes the congratulatory telegram to him over the cornflakes. The Duke of Edinburgh’s very special day will surely deserve to be recognised as his day rather than hers.