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Tribute to Prince Philip by Lord Robertson

Prince Philip, 1985

3 min read

The Duke of Edinburgh was an interesting and interested man. He could take you by surprise with his knowledge and his passionate interest in surprising subjects and he always invited challenge. He could also be direct and blunt. But always magnetic.

I met him on a number of occasions. Not for long or intimately but enough to size up what was under the image. Not only was I often in his company as defence secretary, but like him I was a Knight of the Thistle and an Elder Brother at Trinity House. We crossed paths.

His role as Royal consort was an awkward and undefined one – yet one could see he did with consummate skill and patience. He supported the Queen but was always his own man. 

Others have spelt out his conservation credentials well displayed before they became fashionable. And they were real. When John (Lord) Gilbert was my deputy at the Ministry of Defence, he was someone of contrasts. Hard line on Russia and war but simultaneously a tree-hugger “Save the Whale" enthusiast. He wanted to replace the Guards' bearskins with a synthetic fur. He knew that the Duke shared his view.

He supported the Queen but was always his own man. 

However, Tony Blair had in mind Harold MacMillan’s famous dictum, "Never take on the National Union of Mineworkers and the Brigade of Guards." John and the Duke were told to retreat.

The Duke had a healthy interest in defence, as might be expected. I was quizzed expertly on the 1998 Defence Review. He welcomed the two aircraft carriers – and lived to see both in service – but had strong opinions on other aspects. Unlike others of his rank, he actually listened carefully to the answers to his informed questions and could follow up from knowledge.

If you sat with him at dinner, he was a fount of knowledge on the latest development in computing and technology. He was able, one evening, to explain to me some of the fast-developing trends in this field and I left educated – and impressed. It was such a change from the small-talk of diplomacy.

But of course people remember the directness. To the thin-skinned, it could be bruising. For a politician inured by years of much more brutal directness, it was simply quaint. At a State Dinner, I was wearing proudly my German Order of Merit insignia. As he passed he said: “Ah, Mr Robertson, still wearing your Iron Cross." But he was gone before the witty reply could be thought up. Or his blunt view on the Royal Yacht, whose fate I had had to decide. “Ludicrous decision,” he said – paused – “but probably not your fault, I blame the Navy.”

I was with him at the top table at the 80th anniversary dinner for the Royal Air Force. An enjoyable and, as I said, educational evening sitting with him. At the end, one of the two living RAF VCs, Bob Reid, came up to me to ask if I could get the Duke to autograph his menu card.

I had taken the precaution before the dinner to read Bob’s citation for the VC. It was bravery in the extreme and not only that, he came from Crieff, up the road from where I live. How could I refuse the out-of-order request.

It is of course a serious breach of protocol with HRH Royalty, and given the Duke’s characteristic views, I made the request on behalf of the VC with some real trepidation. I got one of the coldest glares I had ever seen – and then a broad smile as he took the card and signed it. “He deserves it,” he said.

The Duke of Edinburgh made a lasting impression on all he met. His mark on our society – and especially on the monarchy, will long outlast him.

Lord Robertson was Defence Secretary 1997 - 1999

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