Prince Philip was the godfather of Anglo-British nationalism

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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This article was first published by Open Democracy.

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  1. Squigglypen says:

    Excellent article. Now you had better hide or you will be beheaded as everybody sobs crocodile tears for this wonderful guy…gave up his freedom tae live a privileged life..wot a hero…

    1. Iain MacLean says:

      150,000 pass on, the bbc cover it with a headline and the odd half hour documentary. The people who passed on lived in my street, your street and people we know streets, key point being we know these people!

      Some one who we have never met, that has never visited our streets and would never socialise with us or anyone we know passes on. The bbc stop broadcasting on one channel and on their other two channels, they run wall to wall coverage featuring unearned privilege and excess whilst dressing it up as being noble modest greatness with god like appeal that we should be grateful for.

      An individual’s passing is a sad affair and condolences to next of kin are appropriate, but the bbc will rightly come in for intense criticism for their over the top sycophantic coverage! As always with the bbc, when there is a chance, tragedy or not, they will always make political capital out of it for their masters!

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        I put it to CBeebies for the grandwean half expecting to see his body lying in state.

        1. Pub Bore says:

          Starting them young with the brainwashing, are you not, Tom? Have you no shame, exposing your grandweans to the BBC?

          1. Tom Ultuous says:

            I thought it was safe PB after I read this quote from Gorgeous George of the Tory Alliance Party.

            He tweeted: “BBC Scotland is heavily seeded with Scottish Nationalists. They hate the Crown but they live well on its half-crown. Their counterparts elsewhere in the corporation ooze euromania and identity-politics liberalism.

            “Together they are quite a Festival against Britain.

          2. Pub Bore says:

            Aye, ilka body and his dug thinks the BBC is biased, which makes you wonder.

            I reckon George would rebias the BBC so that it runs true to the trajectory of his own prejudices. Wouldn’t we all?

      2. Iain MacLean says:

        bbc are not taking complaints about their excessive coverage of the passing of Mr Windsor, they are so overburdened with complaints, they have had to open up a dedicated complaint form. It can be accessed at:

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @Iain MacLean, do the royals even pay the BBC licence fee? Even the Daily Express thinks not.

          If the BBC licence fee entitled viewers to some kind of vote (or quota of preference options), the BBC could even be a democratic organisation, a true public broadcaster. Of course, with the royal charter, Privy Council, all that MI5 vetting, the enormous skewing of its staff towards elitist management demographics as recognised by Ofcom, the control by ministers, the toxic reactionary/neoliberal culture fomented by agenda-setting corporate media, that is not going to happen any time soon. But if the royals are not prepared to either a) pay their BBC licence fees or b) throw off their cloak of secrecy, then their views should not be represented on BBC channels, surely?

  2. Michael says:

    Absolutely right. If the Royals had played their cards right, Harry and Meghan could have been the best thing to ever happen for the institution – bringing it into this new era. Seems the royal court is just too last century to understand what a gift Meghan could have been. Now they have made an enemy of their best possible PR vehicle. Very short-sighted!

    1. Dougie Blackwood says:

      Unfortunately Harry and Meghan were never likely to be acceptable to the “Firm”. The Daily Mail and Express would never allow it. The reason is as clear as her face. We need to move on and start afresh in a meritocratic country free from deference to those and such as those. The house of Windsor has oulived its usefulness and an independent Scotland should be republican and free of the baubles of patronage. We need no Princes, Lords or Sirs or a top down ruling elite to keep us in our place.

      1. Michael says:

        Yes. I’m not arguing to retain the crown. Just that the crown missed a trick if self preservation is its goal 🙂

  3. Pub Bore says:

    You ascribe Philip far too much Carlylean greatness. He was a creature of post-war Britain, not its author.

    I do like the idea of modern nations as ‘imagined communities convened by the media’, though. I could run with that for a while, see where it takes me.

  4. Chris Ballance says:

    Good article Adam, thank you. All we need now is for the Queen to follow suit as she inevitably will sometime, and the Palace of Westminster to develop an electrical fault and burn down – and the old Anglo-British order truly will have passed on. The Daily Express already wants a national rammis as to who should follow Elizabeth Windsor (Charles being a bit too much of a hippy).

    1. Roland Chaplain says:

      Step back a moment and think ! There’s a lot more to all this.
      Why should the Scottish election campaign come to an abrupt halt ? Why should we play to THEIR agenda when above all else we want to be independent from their insidious control epitomised by the BBC’s sycophantic adoration of the establishment. Suddenly we meekly have to stop campaigning and allow “them” a free hand, for how many days I don’t know, to glorify unionism (not just of the crowns) unchallenged.

      In fact, it’s a lot worse than that ! Today “Social Europe” publishes an article on “A European wealth tax” which could be a ‘win-win’ strategy for reducing extreme wealth inequality and funding the recovery from the pandemic. Read more​
      The Royal family (and those closely associated with them) has great wealth which is desperately needed for combating the climate and ecological crises.
      Yet the “war hero” message gets used to help subliminally justify next generation Trident.

      And even worse than that ! Patrons of the arts, culture and multiple charities – great for the image, but what of the reality ?
      I met Philip once.
      It was in the Year of the Disabled at a big event where he was speaking. Some clever political maoeuvering meant that I’d managed to persuade the organisers to let me orchestrate the bringing of some 20 actual, ordinary, disabled people to that event. I was waiting for the lift with one of these disabled people in a wheelchair.
      The lift door opened.
      The next I knew was the Prince and his minder, who had come up behind us, had pushed past us and commandeered the lift for his EXCLUSIVE use. That is how privilege works in our unequal society. Gentleman and Lady bountiful cynically using the poor, the unfortunate and the needy to bolster and justify their antiquated roles. groups across the globe have organised a 3-day webinar over this weekend around the theme of a “Just Recovery”.
      Those parts of the webinar I attended today were inspirational. They reflected what a new young generation see as a reconnected world of the future.
      I think we’ll hear a lot more about reindigenising – an order of magnitude more significant in its implications than just, the now rather fashionable, “rewilding”.

    2. Tom Ultuous says:

      “The Daily Express already wants a national rammis as to who should follow Elizabeth Windsor (Charles being a bit too much of a hippy).”

      It would be wise to wait to see if HRM remarries first. It’s rumoured that, like Charles, she’ll now be free to marry her true love. Long live King Michael of Fagan.

  5. Peter Kershaw says:

    I think Prince Philip was born a bit too late to be as influential as the article claims, but there are some good insights here. But please don’t confuse “The Crown” with any kind of version of history, except an unashamed fictional one. It doesn’t even pretend to be a documentary.

  6. Chas Gallagher says:

    OK, so the old bugger is dead, RIP. But why do our main TV news channels and then all planned programmes cancelled as they repeat ad nausea the same old guff about him over and over. As I see it the one good thing he ever did was to introduce the Duke of Edinburgh scheme for youngsters. Other than that he was an embarrassment.

  7. Wul says:

    Phillip’s life story demonstrates that the UK is able to pluck Mediterranean refugees from a boat and offer them a safer life on our shores.

    I trust that Priti Patel will reflect on Phil the Greek’s successful asylum seeking and extend this beneficence to other refugees.

    1. Pub Bore says:

      The British might have plucked Philip and his mixed-race parents from Corfu, but they only took them as far as France, where they were granted asylum. Philip only came to Britain after his mother’s health disintegrated, his father absconded to the South of France with his mistress, and an Anglo-Danish uncle here assumed guardianship of him and promptly packed him off to boarding school to be moulded into a passable Englishman. Gordonstoun made a pretty decent fist of doing so, though ‘Philippos the Olive-Nigger’ (as he was, according to my mother, popularly disparaged among the hoi polloi during his courtship of the Princess Elizabeth) apparently preferred to think of himself both then and ever after as a Scandinavian.

    2. r says:

      Well said ! Not-so-Priti is it ?

  8. florian albert says:

    ‘Prince Philip was the godfather of Anglo-British nationalism.’

    He was the godfather of nothing. He was the Queen’s husband; the man who walked a few steps behind her, with his hands behind his back, for decades. No more, no less.

  9. Richard Easson says:

    It never seems fair to talk ill of the dead, but I was wondering why no mention was ever made of the Duke’s visit in the early sixties to his friend in Spinningdale in Sutherland, James Robertson Justice, when sightings of “starlets” and famous Sex-bombs were made at the same time.

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