Our Strength And Stay

A speech in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh

William Shawcross

Prince Philip meeting Duke of Edinburgh Award winners last year: Millions of young people have benefited since the award’s inception in 1956 (NORTHERN IRELAND OFFICE  CC BY 2.0)

Your Royal Highness, My Lords, Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to be here in this lovely and historic club [The Travellers], of which you have been Patron since 1952, to toast you tonight at this wonderful dinner celebrating the 90th birthday of Her Majesty The Queen.

My task is not easy, because I know that you do not like to be praised. I am afraid therefore that the next few minutes will be tiresome for you.

Let me start with your sense of humour. I think everyone admires your ability to indulge in what you once called dontopedalogy — I quote “the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, a science which I have practised for a good many years.”

In fact, I think most of us admire your forthrightness in saying things which we think but rarely dare to say. Thus for example in the 1960s, you said, “I would like to visit Russia very much — although the bastards murdered half my family.”
When those bastards were removed in the early 1990s, your visit to Russia with the Queen was a huge success.

Before I move on from your sense of humour, I very much enjoyed the way in which you outfoxed the US Secret Service when President Obama came to Windsor Castle recently.

The Queen had quite rightly said she was not having a vast fleet of heavy US armoured limos driving into the castle. Instead, you drove down to the helicopter in your Range Rover and popped the President in the front seat and his wife and the Queen in the back and drove them home yourself. I understand that the Secret Service were not amused to see their precious President driven off by a dontopedalogist of a certain age. On this occasion, your feet were firmly on the pedals. You had the last laugh then, as so often.

Now, the original rules of the Travellers Club excluded from membership anyone “who has not travelled out of the British islands to a distance of at least 500 miles from London in a direct line”.

Easy for you, because as a child, Sir, you often travelled more than 500 miles into the British islands, because you came to school here. In the war you served in the Royal Navy and sailed thousands of miles fighting for the freedom of the world. You had a very good war and were mentioned in dispatches.

But your greatest journey has been that which you and the former Princess Elizabeth have made together. Your wedding on November 20, 1947, came as a shaft of light though the clouds and rigours of impoverished postwar Britain.

I hope you will not mind my quoting a couple of contemporary letters between you and your mother-in-law, the then Queen.

Soon after your engagement she wrote to express her love and confidence: “There is so much that can be done in the muddled and rather worried world by example and leadership and I am sure that you and Lilibet have a great part to play.”

Soon after your wedding, you wrote to her of your joy and said that your ambition was to make your marriage into a combined existence for the good: “Very humbly I thank God for Lilibet and for us.”

The Queen, who understood well your independent spirit, responded: “Dearest Philip, I do hope you will not find public life too trying but you will have the comfort of knowing that you are giving so much towards the happiness and stability of the country.

“I am certain too that as time goes on you will be able to help Papa VERY much. I do look forward to that for he has many and great burdens to bear.”

Alas, you hardly had time to fulfil that duty because in February 1952 the King died in his sleep, tragically young,  and your lives were changed for ever.

Princess Elizabeth, now Queen at only 25, had a hugely difficult new task, and you had to sacrifice your fine career in the Navy in order to give her all the support she needed. It was not easy for a strong-minded, independent person who had seen himself as something of a loner. But ever since you have always been there for the monarch — and therefore for us. It has been a life of service for you both.

You have also deployed your exceptional talents in a host of other interests. Nearly eight million young people throughout the world have benefited, often in life-changing ways, from your Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme, now in its Diamond Jubilee year. That alone is an extraordinary achievement.

You have also encouraged closer relations between management and labour within the Commonwealth through your Study Conferences, also set up in 1956, and still going strong under the guiding hand of your daughter, the Princess Royal.

You played a leading role in the wildlife and conservation movement long before that became fashionable. And on your own computer, acquired in 1985, you completely rewrote the rules of your favourite sport, carriage-driving. Those are only a few of your many activities and interests, not to mention painting.

Your travelling together on behalf of the country has been ceaseless, beginning with your tour of the Commonwealth in 1953-54 which ended with Prince Charles and Princess Anne sailing to meet you in Malta on the maiden voyage of the Royal Yacht Britannia. That great ship was your beloved voyaging home for 43 years and was herself a marvellous ambassador for Britain, travelling over a million miles in Britain’s service. In the mid-1950s you made two round-the-world voyages, visiting places then inaccessible except by sea, as far apart as Antarctica and remote Pacific islands. It is hard to believe that a great maritime nation and its monarchy no longer has such a ship.

Most important of all, Her Majesty and you have presided over a country on a tumultuous journey from imperial power to a more uncertain polyglot European society. The nation’s successful transition owes a huge amount to your joint stewardship. We have resisted dangerous Isms, and we are today one of the world’s leading defenders of democracy, the rule of law, a free economy and free speech.

All of us know how much more difficult this journey would have been had you not been there at the apex of our constitutional monarchy, which really is envied around the world. 

In the words of the philosopher Roger Scruton, the monarchy has been the light above all political and social change — and a crucial emblem of assurance on which to focus loyalty and love. Her Majesty and you both understand that the crown is an office, defined by its duties, and not an individual, defined by hopes and fears.

The Queen has shown how to adapt that office to the constantly changing conditions of the modern world. Moreover, she has a distinctive personality, kind, loyal, patriotic and imbued with Christian feeling, which shines through the office.

You, Sir, with your own Christian faith, have been able to support that remarkable Queen, without ever interfering with the office. This has been an astonishing achievement — to be always there for the one, and not intruding on the other.  

The Queen has said of you, Sir, that you have always been her “strength and stay”.  May I say to you, Sir, that together you and Her Majesty have for more than 60 years been “the strength and stay” of this great country.
We all owe you a huge debt of gratitude.    

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