Prince Philip Was the Godfather of Anglo-British Nationalism

Yves here. It may seem odd to commemorate the death of Prince Philip, since the British monarchy is a hoary symbol of [take your pick of positive or negative associations] whose main purpose today is brand-building. Yet even today, the Royals exercise influence over politics (one recent article described the Queen’s extensive but quiet lobbying in defense of her tax havens), opinion, and fashion. A bare minimum, they are billionaires whose deal with the British public is they get to rattle around their drafty castles, have staff and allowances, in return for looking useful and making lots of appearances. One friend explained that the reason Meghan was so quickly unhappy with her new role was that she didn’t understand the job description. No, you do not fly on private jets. Yes, you spend about 100 days a year in Bumfuck England cutting ribbons at hospital openings and the like. Diana loved hobnobbing with ordinary people and basking in their appreciation of attention from a Royal. Meghan can’t abide regular folks.

As this article explains, Prince Philip lived through the long decline of British power and along with it, a reduction in the role of the throne.

By Adam Ramsay (@adamramsay), openDemocracy’s main site editor. @adamramsay. Adam is a member of the Scottish Green Party, sits on the board of Voices for Scotland and advisory committees for the Economic Change Unit and the journal Soundings. Originally published at openDemocracy

Philip Mountbatten Windsor with Elizabeth Windsor, 2015. | By Myles Cullen –, Public Domain

In the year before Prince Philip was born, 1920, the British empire was the largest it would ever be. The year after he was born, 1922, Charles Francis Jenkins demonstrated the first principles of the television.

The changes driven by decolonisation and the invention of the modern media, between them, could easily have ended the reign of the House of Windsor. The fact that they didn’t, the success of the British monarchy in transitioning from the divine rulers at the apex of history’s biggest empire to the celebrities at the centre of a modern nationalist project built on TV and the tabloids, was, in large part, because of the duke of Edinburgh, who died today at 99.

As chair of the Queen’s coronation committee in 1953, Philip proposed a radical idea: why not televise it? The result was the most-watched TV show in history at the time, doing more than anything else to make television a mainstream medium.

The next day, a Daily Express journalist wrote that the show “set up brilliant new standards in linking the crown with the people”; viewers, he said, “virtually rode with the Queen through London and stood near to her in the ancient Abbey itself”.

By grabbing such a vast audience and directly – or so it seemed – involving them in the once-distant rituals of the state, Philip fathered a whole new phenomenon. And the tension between the institutions he pulled together – TV, the tabloids, and the monarchy – became the tripod on which Anglo-British nationalism hung, as the empire fell apart.

Philip also became an icon of this world view: his racist ‘jokes’ were carefully delivered in a cheeky tone as if he was a naughty boy mocking some kind of power, when in reality, he was the one with the power. It’s a tone he perfected: I remember him using it when we joked together on the three occasions I met him. But what they hid was something more insidious.

Philip’s uncle and mentor, Louis Mountbatten, was the man who did more than anyone else to partition India. Indeed it was extraordinary that William Windsor named his son Louis after one of the greatest criminals of late empire and yet has since gone on to say the monarchy is “very much not a racist family”.

The atrocities of the late British empire – from concentration camps in Malaysia to castrations in Kenya – were quietly ignored. The decorative function of the monarchy was always intended to mask the violence of the state, and Philip played a vital role in bringing that screen to life in the 20th century.

If modern nations are imagined communities convened by the media and feudal states were family affairs, then the new relationship he arranged fused the one with the other, giving birth to a gaudy heritage of Churchillism, imperial revisionism, Thatcherism and, most recently, Brexit.

Of course this relationship was always tense. But it was Diana who briefly mastered it, before it killed her. As Anthony Barnett has argued in his book ‘The Lure of Greatness’, she transformed herself into the first celebrity populist, who Trump obsessed over.

Now, the godfather of Anglo-British nationalism has died just as it enters a crisis, with riots in Northern Ireland as Loyalists realise the risk of Ireland uniting, elections in Scotland likely to advance the movement for independence, the Harry-and-Meghan rift and a deep loss of faith in the British ruling class.

And so we can expect the institutions of the Anglo-British nation to desperately peddle their usual message. The BBC’s Nicholas Witchell, a wibbling belligerent of monarchical propaganda, is already prostrating himself on television. Tomorrow, the tabloids will smear themselves in red, white and blue. Conservative politicians and the Labour figures who like to hide behind them will bellow mournful tears of sorrow.

But the truth is that 99-year-olds die, and their eras dissipate.

TV and tabloids are no longer the vivid and exciting formats they once were. They’ve been replaced with social media and streaming websites, which have formed different kinds of audience: audiences who aren’t amazed simply to be allowed to watch the affairs of state, but insist on participating in them; audiences who it’s much harder to bind into national borders and tell which ‘we’ they belong to. Audiences who, through their connections with each other, find their understandings of the world start to shift. Audiences who, in the case of Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ are now able to access a less propagandised version of their history than the British press presents.

Harry and Meghan’s split from the royal family was driven by this divide: they wouldn’t tolerate being bound into the toxic racism of tabloid Britain, and instead launched themselves as a transatlantic king and queen of Instagram. And they represent a generation. Anglo-British nationalism has largely failed to make the leap into modern media. For younger generations on the UK’s periphery, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish or Northern Irish identities are more common. And for England, who knows?

Anglo-British nationalism was already waning. Today, its godfather passed away. And once its mother has gone, who knows how long it will survive?

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  1. Roland

    Ramsay is veering all over the place. He says that nationalism’s day is done, and then extols the various Celtic nationalisms. He says that TV’s day is done, and then extols a TV series on Netflix.

    Ramsay holds the relatives of a constitutional monarch somehow to blame for the Indo-Pakistan conflict, as if the peoples of that region have had no agency in the three generations since 1947. Ramsay thus reveals his own persistent imperialistic attitude, for which of course the late Prince cannot be held responsible. BTW somebody should remind Ramsay that Mountbatten was assassinated over 40 years ago.

    Ramsay’s petty, pointless spites however do serve to remind one of why nationalistic conflicts are likely to remain a feature of human affairs, regardless of generation or media format.

    1. Basil Pesto

      He says that nationalism’s day is done, and then extols the various Celtic nationalisms. He says that TV’s day is done, and then extols a TV series on Netflix.

      I don’t find this to be a particularly compelling piece, but that’s a pretty strained reading.

      With regards to the latter point, first, there’s a distinction to be made between TV as an information format and as an entertainment one and I admit he’s a bit unclear on this if that’s what he has in mind, but, second, he does draw a distinction between TV and streaming websites, the latter of which being what Netflix falls under.

      1. Carolinian

        Netflix is also the American home of The Crown which depicts the royals as a kind of royal soap opera–which no doubt they are and perhaps one reason they continue to hold onto “audience share.” When it comes to the imperialism angle this American suspects that the show pulls its punches to keep the characters sympathetic.

        But interesting the above comparison between Diana and Trump.

    2. SOMK

      One of those nationalisms is based on empire, the other is based on freedom from empire, it’s a subtle distinction granted.

      1. Susan the other

        Thanks. This is confusing. Raises the question about just how far “empire” can subdivide itself. Could Anglo British nationalism become defined by Yorkshire and London and further at odds?

        1. Michael Quinlan

          There is now a Northern Independence Party, low numbers but won’t even have had that 10 years ago. No idea where this will end.

    3. PlutoniumKun

      You seem to have some sort of Issue with the author, I can’t see anything in the article that reflects your criticisms. And Netflix is not TV, its an internet streaming service, which explains the distinction Ramsey was (I assume) making. I’d also suggest a little reading on Indian history (I’m sure Jerri-Lynn can chime in here). Mountbatten was the key figure in the disastrous decision making during the period of independence, although of course he wasn’t the only guilty figure.

  2. Synoia

    Philip also became an icon of this world view: his racist ‘jokes’ were carefully delivered in a cheeky tone as if he was a naughty boy mocking some kind of power, when in reality, he was the one with the power. It’s a tone he perfected: I remember him using it when we joked together on the three occasions I met him. But what they hid was something more insidious.

    Like most of the British Upper class. This behavior was a major feature of Bullying in British Public schools.

    1. Michaelmas

      This behavior was a major feature of Bullying in British Public schools.

      It’s a major feature of British life, period. The dark side of things like Monty Python, maybe.

      The piece above places the stress on Philip’s jokes being racist — the big no-no, according to current mores — but Philip was pretty much a freelance, equal-opportunity crap-stirrer. Some samples over the years —

      On death: In the event that I am reincarnated, I would like to return as a deadly virus, to contribute something to solving overpopulation (1988)

      To the General Dental Council: Dentopedalogy is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it. I have been practising it for years (1960)

      On Number 10’s idea for Diana’s funeral: F*** off – we are talking about two boys who have lost their mother (1997)

      Told by Elton John of his gold Aston Martin: Oh, it’s you that owns that ghastly car – we often see it when driving to Windsor Castle (2001)

      To president Kenyatta during Kenya’s independence, as the Union Jack was lowered: Are you sure you want to go ahead with this, old chap? (1963)

      To his wife after her coronation: Where did you get that hat? (1953)

      More samples here —

    1. The Rev Kev

      It has been saturation coverage in Oz as well. The establishment here sure loves their Royals.

  3. Harry

    Im not surprised Meghan couldnt abide regular Brits. I would guess 20% would have problems with her as a Royal, and 20% of them would have had no problem showing it.

    People can get very upset about people not knowing their place. I know I have managed to upset people in my youth.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      It was admittedly many years ago, but my experience in the London office of McKinsey in the early 1980s was that Brits (specifically Oxbridge types) did not like American women, particularly ones they regarded as “grand” (as in they could not place their class exactly, but it sure wasn’t secretarial/working class and direct, which to them meant not knowing their place).

      1. PlutoniumKun

        In my experience British upper middle class types really struggle with people who they can’t ‘place’ in terms of class and background. Some use this to their advantage (the Celts and Aussies are particularly good at this – hence the popularity of Scots, Irish and Ozzies on UK TV), but I think Americans lack a knowledge of the social codes that comes from being brought up watching BBC shows.

        I know a Taiwanese girl who, despite coming from a humble background and being painfully shy, did really well socially and professionally when she moved to England for a few years. She had learned her English from her love of Jane Austin and costume dramas, as a result of which she had a delightfully old fashioned slightly posh accent (even before she set foot in London). I’m convinced that it was her accent that helped her.

        1. TimH

          In the UK, I’d say accents really matter in the social hierarchy placings. As somebody with a reasonable (but non-arts) education, speech with glottal (glot’al) stops and other horrors such as v being pronounced as f make me cringe. Let’s not delve into the use of ‘of of’… I even saw that once on a roadside ad.

          And I’ve never found the royal family the slightest bit charming. Venality behind a veneer of maintaining status quo. Good for our ‘arry and Meg, I say.

          1. Pat

            As “our ‘arry and Meg” have the worst of the Royal’s venality with little of the veneer of either status quo or service, I can only assume you expect their greed to destroy the Royal Family in a matter of years rather than waiting for the slow decline they are on to finish them off.

          2. eg

            Shaw had it right when he quipped, “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him.”

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          Agreed with you and TimH. I had woman sort of friend (we weren’t close but dined occasionally) who worked in London for many years. She did have the advantage of looking exactly like Audrey Hepburn, including the petite frame, but lighter hair color. She also affected a plummy accent. She did very well.

          She was also the sort that was able to say, in an interview with her prospective boss, what she thought her job was: “To be your platform to greatness.” Barf.

          1. TimH

            There is a certain type of woman who can portray a high level of attractiveness that most men fancy her, but with a subtle aloofness that no-one dares go beyond mild innuendo (ignored) and certainly no-one dares to explicitly hit on her.

            Voice and posture are key.

            It’s interesting seeing it work even when knowing how and why it’s a manipulation.


          I realized Brits don’t not like American women since Linda Ronstadt never had a hit song there. The closest was Blue Bayue in the lower Top 40. I think it’s that tomboy quality that Americans crush on but the English think is unLadylike.

  4. David Jones

    History travels slowly.Thomas Paine,the UK’s greatest revolutionary had it down nearly 300 years ago with his question What civilised country needs a monarchy ?

    1. shtove

      Burned in effigy during the Napoleonic Wars. At least we’ve replaced the annual Guy Fawkes weekend of hate with “seasonal” trips to the supermarkets, their aisles stacked with jack o’ lanterns and kids masks from postmodern US horror movies.

  5. caloba

    Ramsay seems “all over the place”, as you say Roland, perhaps because he’s torn between the modish western taste for ostentatious self-flagellation and the traditional Scots culture of anti-English grievance. Sometimes these tendencies are in harmony, sometimes in conflict.

    Incidentally, does anyone here think that all would have been sweetness and light on the sub-continent had there not been a partition between India and the Pakistans?

    1. Bill

      I think partition was almost certain. The official position of Atlee’s government was to avoid partition. But growing violence led to a change in policy.

  6. Martin Davis

    What’s significant to me about Ramsay’s note is that he doesn’t conclude with a recommendation of abolition, but instead wonders how long the monarchy can last. Rather a passive attitude, in my opinion. It is as if the institution is fading, to be sure, but waiting for someone or something to put it out of its misery, a bit like the retirement of the last Roman Emperor by the Ostrogothic ruler of Italy in 476, the institution being no longer of utility. As a republican (which sounds quaint, doesn’t it) I have for a long time wished the end to it all. Buck House would make a wonder full centrepiece to the People’s Parks in Central London. Still, I think a reforming government motivated and able to abolish the House of Lords and give us a written constitution, would have enough energy to send the Windsors off to Sandringham…to be taxed just like the rest of us.

  7. Astrid

    I would happily take QE2, Philip, Charles, or William over the likes of Blair, May, Cameron, Johnson, Sturgeon, and Starmer.

    1. shtove

      Until recently, in theory all the monarch had to do was renounce the civil list, undoing the 1688 settlement, and resume her powers. Now it’s on a statutory basis, so she’ll have to get Johnson et al to agree.

    2. Basil Pesto

      I suspect if the former group actually had to be engaged in the very public business of governing, they’d very quickly come to seem like the latter group.

  8. Astrid

    Perhaps, though I would point out that the Battenberg-Coburg-Saxes’ track record is pretty good overall. They got very lucky that Edward VIII decided to self immolate. My impression is that even with their many warts, her four children are not a bad lot (even Andrew, when compared to the likes of Trump and Clinton children).

    The current lot of British politicians seems to fall well below the historical average. They seem intentionally selected for craven venality and dishonesty. Compared to them, I suspect that most people including the BRF would do better in similar circumstances.

  9. Mikey Joe

    How long will the English monarchy survive?
    The Irish have found it has survived an fado (a long time.)

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