'The true courtesy of princes is not just their punctuality, but their engagement'
I was attending a reception in the Royal Gallery, House of Lords, at which the Duke of Edinburgh was present. As he moved around from one group of MPs to another, he joined those with whom I was standing, and I introduced myself. He looked at me keenly. "Burt," he said, "Bedfordshire. I’m coming to your constituency. To Shuttleworth College."
I was quite astonished. He was indeed, but it was in about a months’ time. I rarely knew what I was up to the next day, let alone four weeks away, but here was this man well into his eighties with a grasp of his schedule; nothing short of admirable. Not for the first time, I appreciated how fortunate we all were to have such dedication from those who would soon be seeing our constituents.
It is one of the privileges of the life of an MP, or minister, that in the course of our duties we get the chance to meet with members of the Royal Family, who are going about theirs. Not only do we share an official moment, in full view of those who may be involved in the visit or occasion, but sometimes the behind-the-scenes moments too.
The stories emerging in the last few days paint almost a mosaic of the UK
I make no claim to have known His Royal Highness well, or to have fulfilled numerous engagements with him, but to that extent I am not much different to Everyman, the hundreds of thousands – it may be millions – of people up and down the country who, because of the length of his service, will have had a single moment with him leaving a lasting memory. The stories emerging in the last few days paint almost a mosaic of the UK, as we hear those tales, from those who met him in so many different places, such as at a yacht club, in the Forces or as a result of their efforts in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme.
The stories have a common theme. In a ministerial capacity, I was with him at an exhibition in London for one of his charities, following a few steps behind his party. The pattern was familiar – he would walk a few paces, stop, talk intensely with a small group, then there would be a burst of laughter all round, and he would move on. The privilege of joining him afterwards for that private chat and a cup of tea was matched by the need to have been completely on top of the brief, to answer his questions.
He knew his stuff. His presence at an occasion was not for form’s sake, and the popular caricature of Royalty asking simple questions is far from the truth. On the occasions I was in his presence, he exhibited a real interest and awareness of the subject, from farming practices to military and security matters, and his questioning was designed not to worry, but to give an opportunity to those he met to share a mutual passion, or to deliver information which one felt was being absorbed for good purpose. This is a rare skill in chance encounters, and the ability to lighten the mood, and induce a laugh with a couple of words, would usually seal a memory for ever, I imagine.
My overwhelming impression is of a man who was always himself, who knew his reputation, but never played to it or became a caricature of himself. He gave the British people the courtesy not only of his duty, but of involvement with their lives in a likeable manner which they would never forget.
How very, very fortunate we have been.
Alistair Burt was Conservative MP for Bury North from 1983 to 1997 and North East Bedfordshire from 2001 to 2019
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