IAN DUNT on what the death of the Duke of Edinburgh tells us about our country.
The royals help define an age. It doesn’t matter if you support the monarchy, couldn’t care less about it, or want to overthrow it. As long as they’re there, they become part of the country’s sense of self. They influence, and are influenced by, the national culture.
The death of Prince Philip therefore feels important, regardless of whether you had much time for him personally, or for the institution. It’s the fading of an era.
You can see this in the different generations of the royal family. The Queen and Prince Philip projected quiet fortitude, duty and emotional stoicism.
Their children reflected the trends of the boomer generation, typified by divorce and that kind of jangled yearning which came from greater social liberation.
Their grandchildren reflect a millennial instinct. Prince William is more at ease talking about mental health than his parents or grandparents ever could be. Prince Harry is embroiled in a media war with the family over equality and representation.
When we look at the royals, we see ourselves. It’s not a direct reflection. Their lives are fundamentally insane: surrounded by wealth, imprisoned by tradition and obsessively watched over like a zoo exhibit.
It’s more like a reflection in a funhouse mirror. It’s warped and weird, but a reflection nonetheless. The values of Harry compared to Philip are indicative of any number of disagreements grandchildren will have with their grandparents across the country.
So when royals pass away, it’s not just a personal event or even a constitutional one. It’s a chapter break in the national story.
In some ways, we’ll be glad to leave the previous era behind. It’s much rarer now to hear the kind of smirking racism and instinctive superiority which Prince Philip regularly demonstrated. Many commentators have recently tried to skate over these comments under euphemisms like ‘plainspoken’ or ‘gaffe-prone’. But they weren’t plain speaking and they weren’t gaffes. They were just straight-up racism.
Equally, it has been unpleasant to watch some opponents of the monarchy define him exclusively through these comments. He was a 99-year-old man. He is plainly going to have views which do not chime with today’s standards. It’s a grim society which casts every older person remorselessly into the ditch for their failure to abide by modern values. There’s a good chance we won’t be able to comprehend modern values either, if we’re lucky enough to get that old.
But the most significant departure from Philip’s generation isn’t really about politics. It’s about sentiment. We have left behind that sense of emotional silence, the stiff-upper-lip, the notion that feelings, if they are expressed at all, should be articulated privately.
We will, in general, be happier, healthier and kinder people because of this change. The millennial sensitivity of Harry and William is far superior to the locked-away emotional restraint of their grandparents’ generation.
But there is something to lose as well. You got a sense of it after the death of Princess Diana. In those fraught few days, the press and public briefly turned against the Queen with shocking speed. Suddenly, her sense of private emotion and quiet fortitude was a hindrance, not an asset.
People demanded not just that she mourn, but that she be seen to mourn. And eventually, she was forced to.
That was a sign that something fundamental had changed and not necessarily for the better. It was not really about the acknowledgement of emotion, but instead about the theatrics of it – of us expecting people who are grieving to behave a certain way, and of judging those who don’t to be somehow deficient, or fraudulent, or dead inside. And of course that suits the tabloid press, who rely on vivid emotional stories for their coverage and brand those who act differently as loners or weirdos.
But it’s not true that everyone wants to express their emotions publicly. Each person experiences and demonstrates emotions in different ways. Sometimes they do want to weep with others. Sometimes they wish to do so privately. Sometimes the saddest moments in life do not come with tears and wailing, but in silence, without any sign to the outside of what we are going through.
In today’s culture, saturated by social media and reality TV, emotions have become increasingly demonstrative. We are encouraged to express every moment of sadness, or outrage, or enthusiasm. And with that comes an expectation, a requirement. In its own way, it is just as oppressive as the culture of emotional silence which came before it. And it is just as conformist and unkind as the insistence that we refrain from it.
The passing of eras gives an opportunity to take stock of the ways in which we’ve changed. Hopefully we will remember that there is something to be said for private emotion as well as public ones.
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