Daniela Elser: Prince Philip’s death puts the royal family in danger zone


We don’t know what time HRH the Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich died or which of the 1000-plus rooms at Windsor Castle he was in when he breathed his last.

However, as the world comes to terms with his death one thing we know with crystal-clear certainty: the house of Windsor is about to enter one of the most dangerous periods in its 104-year history (before that it was the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha).

The Duke was 99 years old and had been in poor health for some time, and although his death was hardly a bolt out of the blue, the psychic repercussions of his death cannot be underestimated.

The Queen might be still relatively spry at 94 years old (she turns 95 this month) but the loss of her helpmate and constant supporter marks the beginning of the end of an era.

In fact, the level of the outpouring of public grief represents, to some degree, a tacit understanding of the next inevitable tragedy to strike the royal family: her Majesty’s death.

Whether we like it or not (I vote “not”) the UK and the Commonwealth are about to have to confront the reality of the mortality of the sovereign who has ruled for 69 years.

However, as The Firm, a term Philip himself coined, prepares to lay him to rest, both the family and the institution are facing their greatest test since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.

While in the public domain Philip might have come to be known as a gaffe-prone caricature of princedom, a sort of irreverent, jocular monarchical sidekick to the taciturn Queen, in private he was the backbone of the family and the household’s enforcer.

He might have had to walk two steps behind his wife, literally and figuratively, when they left the palace gates but in the privacy of their many homes, it was he who laid down the law and kept their recalcitrant, renegade bunch of children and grandchildren in line.

However, as age wearied him, that was a role he gradually stepped back from, and the events of recent years have revealed just how yawning of a leadership chasm he has left behind; now after his death that lack of one firm guiding hand running the show could prove fatal to the crown.

Just who will preside over the unruly lot of them all now?

Way back in the days of yore that was 2019, as the rumblings of Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s discontent grew louder, the royal response was deeply flawed.

While plans were being drawn up that would have moved the duo to a Commonwealth nation, potentially South Africa, to become sort of roving youth ambassadors, what is marked in hindsight is the seeming lack of urgency on courtiers’ parts.

Although the palace had accepted that the then-status quo was not working for the Sussexes, nor did they fully appreciate just how at the end their tether the duo were.

As last year’s pro-Sussex biography Finding Freedom set out, Harry, during the couple’s Canadian sabbatical in late 2019, tried in vain to nail down a time to meet his grandmother upon their return to the UK so they could iron out the details. Ultimately they would take things into their own hands, thus setting off a chain reaction of events that has seriously damaged the palace and which are still keenly being felt today.

Would Philip, himself a former outsider who had faced a painful immersion into the royal milieu, have more closely sympathised with Harry and Meghan? Would he of all people have had a far keener understanding of their frustrations and worked to find a solution with much more alacrity? Would he have instinctively understood not only the root problem underlying their agitation but also that the palace moving at its signature glacial pace was incredibly risky?

Even if the so-called Iron Duke had not managed to head off the calamity that was Megxit, had this cleaving of the royal house happened a decade earlier, it is impossible to imagine that he would have stood mutely by while his grandson and granddaughter-in-law took to US TV screens to promptly unleash, both barrels blazing, on the royal family, the situation he had dedicated his life to preserving.

The recent PR conflagration that was the Sussexes’ Oprah interview, and even before that their somewhat churlish reaction to being stripped of their remaining official royal roles in February, reflect just how badly the house of Windsor has fractured in recent years — fractured, that is, along fraternal fault lines.

And yet faced with this continually expanding crisis which has had, and will continue to have, significant damaging consequences for the monarchy, what has become apparent is there is serious yawning, vacuum at the top of the royal household.

Without Philip’s authoritarian hand to try and keep a lid on things or even manage the fallout, the situation has continued to spiral out of control, placing even further stress and nearly unthinkable strain on the fabric and unity of the royal house.

And that, in turn, has, and will continue to, wreak havoc on the monarchy.

Family bickering and clashes have been allowed to foment such that we have seen a Krakatoa of anger and acrimony explode into public view, threatening to reduce the institution to nothing more than a grand and endlessly entertaining soap opera, dignity be damned.

The past few years have seen the Windsors’ genuine do-goodery begin to be increasingly overshadowed by the image of them as a dysfunctional cabbal of self-centred toffs; the royal family left to be increasingly viewed as simply a clutch of egos vying for glowing press coverage and Sovereign Grant funding.

Rather than reinforcing the traditional royal lodestars of duty and service instead we have had Prince Andrew’s ignominious fall from grace and the drama of Megxit, both of which pose the risk of reducing the royal house to something of an embarrassment, an archaic bastion of privilege, cruelty and racism, an expensive anachronism that may very well no longer enjoy the British public’s benign acquiescence.

The idea of a hereditary monarchy was always going to be an increasingly tough sell in the 21st century; that project will be considerably harder if all Buckingham Palace comes to stand for is melodrama and squabbling.

So, will, and indeed can, Charles step into this void?
Although he was reportedly instrumental in forcing his brother to step back from public life after Andrew’s debacle of a 2019 BBC interview, his handling of the Harry and Meghan situation clearly leaves a lot to be desired.

Or, should Prince William step up and become the de facto head slash millennial patriarch? After all, a poll done this week found nearly one in two Brits want him to succeed the Queen when she dies and for the crown to skip Charles entirely. However seems likely to go down about as well with Charles as his wife Camilla Duchess of Cornwall turning his watercolour room into a Peta meeting venue. The Prince of Wales, after all, has been waiting more than 70 years to get the top job.

The danger now is that all the various royal houses will hare off in 101 directions rather than pulling in a concerted, focused direction and that plumping up individual HRHs will supplant a steadfast focus on the good of the crown.

To borrow from the vernacular of Philip’s beloved navy, the biggest question Buckingham Palace will have to answer in the coming weeks and months is, whose hand is decisively on the tiller?

Fail to adequately answer that and a vast monarchical shipwreck looms.

Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.

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