The opportunist prince
He was a typical European high aristocrat, but one who chose his side - and his bride - well, writes Eddie Ford
We have been told endlessly about the “extraordinary” life of Philip Mountbatten-Windsor, Duke of Edinburgh, Baron of Greenwich, Earl of Merioneth. It was certainly not an ‘ordinary’ life, that is for sure. Rather, in most respects, he led the typical life of a European aristocrat - having the attitudes and prejudices you would expect for someone from the upper classes born in the inter-war years.
When looking at prince Philip, it is interesting to contrast his generation of royals to the present crop, both in Britain and Europe. He represented a long history of aristocratic intermarriage, which is now fading from history - it is becoming increasingly common for royals to marry ‘commoners’ instead of each other. Prince Charles was almost the exception for marrying someone from British nobility (albeit the lower rungs).
Both Philip and queen Elizabeth are great-great-grandchildren of queen Victoria - Elizabeth via Victoria’s eldest son, King Edward VII, and Philip by descent from Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice. Both are also descended from King Christian IX of Denmark. If that was not enough, Philip was related to the Romanovs too, through both of his parents, and a direct descendant of emperor Nicholas I of Russia via his paternal grandmother, grand duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia. His maternal grandmother was a sister of Alexandra Feodorovna, wife of emperor Nicholas II. So we are talking about a serious aristocratic pedigree here.
One of his many nicknames was ‘Phil the Greek’, being born in Corfu in 1921 and christened ‘Philippos’. He was a sprig from the house of Glücksburg - the peripatetic and frequently exiled Danish royal family that the Greeks imported in 1863 after the overthrow of the first post-independence Greek king (Otto of Bavaria). The house of Glücksburg is a collateral branch of the house of Oldenburg, members of which have reigned at various times in Denmark, Norway, Greece and several northern German states.
Philip was the only son of prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and princess Alice of Battenberg - sister of Lord Louis Mountbatten, later Earl Mountbatten of Burma. Therefore he was a prince of both Greece and Denmark and from birth he was in the line of succession to both thrones - though always a bit of an outside bet.
Philip’s uncle, Constantine, was forced into exile following the Greco-Turkish war (1919-22) which went very badly for Greece. Meanwhile, prince Andrew of Greece was in hot waters - on trial for “disobeying an order” whilst commanding an army division during the war and partly blamed for the loss of Greek territory to the Turks. In the end things got more desperate - Andrew faced a possible death sentence. However, Britain sent a naval cruiser to rescue Andrew and his young family.
The experience of exile must have affected Philip deeply. He was brought up on the edge of Paris, educated in an American-run primary school. His family lived on the charity of relatives: the elder sisters dressed in hand-me-down clothes, while his father abandoned the family to gamble in the casinos of Monte Carlo. In other words, Philip had a complex background - raised in the Greek Orthodox church, with his family speaking English, French and German interchangeably. Hence you should be cautious talking about him as being Greek, Danish, German … or English. He was part of a cosmopolitan aristocracy, being both very English and yet not English, as he once himself quipped.
In 1930 he was sent to Britain to attend Cheam School, living with the Mountbattens at Kensington Palace. Then in 1933, he was sent to Schule Schloss Salem in Germany, which had the “advantage of saving school fees” because it was owned by the family of his brother-in-law, Berthold, Margrave of Baden. With the rise to power of the Nazis, Salem’s Jewish founder, Kurt Hahn, fled the country and founded Gordonstoun School in Scotland - to which Philip moved after two terms at Salem. After leaving Gordonstoun in early 1939, Philip completed a term as a cadet at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, then repatriated to Greece, living with his mother in Athens for a month in mid-1939 - eventually returning to Britain to resume training for the navy and meeting Elizabeth Windsor for the first time. During World War II, he served in action with the British navy, while two of his brothers-in-law - Prince Christoph of Hesse and Berthold, Margrave of Baden - fought for the Nazis!
After striking up a relationship with Elizabeth Windsor, Philip asked the king for his daughter’s hand in marriage in 1946. Philip had abandoned his Greek and Danish royal titles, adopting the surname, Mountbatten, from his mother’s family and becoming a naturalised British subject. Their engagement was announced in 1947 and naturally the archbishop of Canterbury was keen to ‘regularise’ Philip’s position by officially receiving him into the tender embrace of the Church of England in October 1947. On the morning of the wedding, he was made the Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich in the County of London - a month later he was given the slightly unusual title, His Royal Highness Sir Philip Mountbatten.
Honours were showered upon the young prince Philip. A seat in the House of Lords (where he has never spoken), the freedom of London and Edinburgh, a desk job at the admiralty and £10,000 a year from the public funds - a handsome sum in those days.
It is hard not to conclude that Philip was a wily opportunist. After all, most of his immediate family from the house of Hesse hooked up with the Nazis, occupying high positions in the regime. But if you are an exiled ‘Greek’ aristocrat, it is easy to see why you would choose the British side - the winning side - and he decided to become a Mountbatten rather than a Battenberg or Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg.
Then again, anyone who had a brain in the 1930s knew that another world war was coming. In fact, Lenin was talking about that possibility before he died in 1924 - as did Trotsky from early on. You did not have to be a genius to guess who was going to win such a war, especially if the US decided to back Britain and France again - which made it a virtual certainty. Backing Britain was the smart and obvious thing to do. Similarly, if you are an ambitious aristocrat, who do you decide to marry - some fairly obscure German or Danish princess, or the future queen of England and empress of India?
When he got hitched to Elizabeth, he had no qualms about quickly dumping the Orthodox church - or his Greek nationality. Whatever it took to get ahead. All the chatter about his “brave choices”, “devotion to service” and so on, is total guff. For a European aristocrat who was meant to be penniless, he did not do too badly - dying at 99 in the very salubrious surroundings of Windsor Castle, having led a totally pampered and privileged adult life.
Just like his Orthodoxy or Greek nationality, democracy was another commitment that prince Philip could shed easily if necessary. One of his so-called ‘gaffes’ came when visiting Paraguay in 1963, telling the country’s dictator, Alfredo Stroessner: “It’s a pleasure to be in a country that isn’t ruled by its people.” Rather than misspeaking, he was surely expressing his genuine opinion! In other words, prince Philip was not a natural democrat - but a ‘democrat of convenience’, because that is part of ruling class ideology, its fig-leaf. The Paraguay remark, plus many others, reveals the politics of the man - of the hard right, potentially the authoritarian right.
Another thing that exposes his deeply reactionary politics is the fact that his name was associated with the constant rumours in the late 1960s about a possible coup against the Labour government of Harold Wilson. Over this period there had been the rise of militant trade unionism, anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, student occupations and the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
All of this posed a big problem for the ruling class, MI5 officers saying “Wilson’s a bloody menace” and “We’ll have him out this time”. It is very difficult at this moment (perhaps more secrets will come out over time) to ascertain how actively prince Philip participated in the plotting. But one person who was definitely up to his neck in it was his uncle, Lord Mountbatten - according to rumours, he was going to be appointed head of an interim administration after Wilson had been deposed by the army (maybe Wilson would have gone down fighting to his last breath like Salvador Allende). In 1974 the army occupied Heathrow Airport on the grounds of “training” for possible IRA attacks against the airport. However, Marcia Williams - senior aide and close friend of Wilson - asserted that the operation was ordered as a “practice run” for a military takeover or as a show of strength, as the government itself had not been informed that such an exercise was going to take place. Very suspicious.
Here we come to the real significance of royals like prince Philip and the constitutional monarchy as a whole. The armed forces swear loyalty to the monarch, not to the government (or the constitution, as in the US). In turn, logically, the royals have endless links and connections to the military - most of the males serving in the forces at some point. This is precisely why the CPGB places such importance on republicanism and the abolition of the monarchy in our minimum programme.
We need to stress not so much the off-message racist and sexist ‘gaffes’ that Philip constantly came out with (much “admired” by Frank Furedi, former leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party - see Spiked April 9). He thoroughly internalised the now deeply unfashionable imperialist attitudes of British colonialism and found the greatest of difficulties in coming to terms with the ‘politically correct’ outlook expected of members of the high elite in the late 20th century. No, rather than running with a crass headline such as: “Queen mourns, as another racist bites the dust” (Socialist Worker April 9) - which is merely giving a leftist spin to liberal anti-racism, not standing in opposition to the ruling consensus - we, instead, stress the counterrevolutionary role of the monarchy as a constitutional institution. The struggles for a democratic republic and socialism are inseparable.