How Prince Philip's politically incorrect gaffes hid his sensitive side and thirst for knowledge

How Prince Philip's politically incorrect gaffes hid his sensitive side and thirst for knowledge

04/09/2021

HE was famous for his so-called “gaffes,” politically incorrect one-liners which probably should have stayed in the last century.

But beneath the brusque exterior, Prince Philip- who died this morning, aged 99 – was a deep thinker with a sensitive side and a thirst for knowledge.

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His personal library ran to 12,000 books, 600 of which were about different religions.

He had spent much of the last year in lockdown reading about all sorts of subjects, and sifting through old papers, throwing away what he called ‘dross.”

Royal biographer Gyles Brandreth revealed Philip once told him he had become a caricature of himself, adding: “I suppose I’ve just got to live with it.”

But although he feared his oft-quoted clangers would overshadow his greater achievements, he was also anxious to refute suggestions he was a grumpy old man, a sort of royal Victor Meldrew.“I don’t think I have ever got up to make a speech of any kind, anywhere, ever, and not made the audience laugh at least once,” he said.

And speeches he certainly made – more than 5,000 of them in a 65-year royal career during which he carried out more than 22,000 engagements.

He wrote a dozen books on everything from carriage driving to the environment and bird-watching from the deck of the Royal Yacht Britannia.

And he championed the rights of the individual against red tape and the power of the state.

There are echoes of our current problems during the pandemic in the introduction to his 1984 book Men, Machines and Sacred Cow : “The difference between a free society and one in which all issues are governed by inflexible dogma is the constant change of ideas.

“I hope this book helps people to see some of the problems of this life from a different point of view” he wrote.

With a wealth of experience in many areas – not least 12 years in the Royal Navy including wartime service – Philip had little time for modern day politicians and often treated them with contempt.

On a visit to Ghana in 1999 he asked an MP: “How many members of Parliament do you have?” When told 200 he replied : “That’s about the right number.

“We have 650 and most of them are a complete bloody waste of time.”

When Barack Obama and his wife Michelle posed up for a picture with the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2009 the US President said he had just met the political leaders of the UK, China and Russia.

“Can you tell the difference between them?” snorted Philip. And at a Palace reception to thank those involved in the 2012 Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Philip met Tory Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

“Who are you?” he asked. Hunt explained he was health secretary but had been culture secretary during the Jubilee and Olympics.

“Well, they do move you people on a lot” said Philip, walking off.

At a  private dinner party in 2004 he started ranting about Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair saying: “He promises education, education, education, but never delivers.

“Bring back Mrs Thatcher, that’s what I say.

“There’s no-one quite like Mrs T.”

Despite reports that the Queen and Maggie Thatcher didn’t see eye to eye on all issues, both she and Philip went to her funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2013, a rare honour for a Prime Minister.

The Duke was way ahead of his time on health issues and the environment and many of his ideas from the fifties and sixties are fashionable today, and have been taken up by Prince Charles and Prince William.

In 1956 his comment to school pupils in New Zealand foretold modern day fears about junk food and obesity.

“In this modern age, no-one has to use their arms or legs very much, except to lift their food into their mouths – or possibly to catch the bus!” he said.

He became convinced that overpopulation was the world’s biggest problem and encouraged his own family to have just two children each.

As President of the Worldwide Fund For Nature he helped to save endangered species such as the panda, snow leopard and black rhino, and campaigned to preserve rainforests, saying in 1984: “Ninety-five per cent of the Atlantic rainforest in Brazil has disappeared in the last hundred years.

“There is simply nowhere for the animals to live.

“At the basis of it all is this colossal increase in the human population which is reaching plague proportions.”

So concerned was he that he once said he would like to come back as a deadly virus to cut down the population, a comment which wouldn't go down well today!

As always, Philip tried to apply practical solutions to problems and once commented : “I’m not green.“I’m not a bunny-hugger, one who simply loves animals.

“People are more concerned about how you treat a donkey in Sicily than conservation.”

And he didn't mind disagreeing with his son saying : “Charles is a romantic while I’m a pragmatist.”

On organic farming, much lauded by the Prince of Wales, Philip said as recently as 2008 :“Organic farming is not quite as useful as it sounds. You’ve got to be emotionally committed to it – but if you stand back and be open minded about it, it is quite difficult to really find where it has been a real benefit.”

He was able to combine wit with wisdom to get a point across, such as his scepticism about wind farms in 2005: “When they put up a whole farm of windmills off the north-east coast of Norfolk which is on the main migratory route to Scandinavia, are we going to get sliced up ducks coming across?”

He was able to laugh at himself, saying in his eighties that he had no desire to reach a hundred as “bits are dropping off me already.”

And on a visit to a food-canning factory on the Mediterranean island of Gozo in 2005 staff presented him with two tins of fruit and said they would continue to do so every year for the rest of his life.

With a wry smile the Duke said : “You won’t have to do that for very long then.”

For seven decades Philip was the power behind the throne, and the Queen would be the first to admit that she could not have had such a long and successful reign without his love and support.

In public he hid his true character behind verbal armour-plating, but perhaps a glimpse of the real Philip was revealed in a beautiful prayer he composed about the environment for a children’s charity book.

“O Lord, the creator of the Universe and author of the laws of nature, inspire in us thy servants the will to ensure the survival of all the species of animals and plants, which you have given to share this planet with us.

“Help us to understand that we have a responsibility for them and that ‘having dominion’ does not mean that you have given us the right to exploit the living world without thought for the consequences.

“Through him who taught us that Solomon in all his glory could not compare with the beauty of the flowers of the field.”

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