Buckingham Palace announced today that the Duke of Edinburgh will retire from Royal engagements this autumn. He'll be 96 next month, which is a quarter-century past the average retirement age - or four decades past it, if you're a French or Greek civil servant.
His Royal Highness is the Queen's consort. That's an ill-defined role prone to an accumulation of frustrations: for Americans, think First Lady or Vice President for life. A lot of consorts are unpopular with their spouse's subjects (for example, Queen Rania, Jordan's current Hashemite hottie). Prince Philip has been doing it longer than anyone in the history of the Royal Family, since the day in 1952 when he and Princess Elizabeth were at Treetops in Kenya and received the news that George VI (the King's Speech guy) had died. Harry Truman was in the White House; Stalin was in the Kremlin; some guy called Mao had just taken over in China. That's a long time.
I last saw him five years ago in Glasgow with my daughter, who was impressed by how cool he was, and how spry for a nonagenarian. Elsewhere, opinions differ. He's worshiped as a god in outlying parts of Vanuatu, but in Canberra the ruling Liberal Party went bananas and ended Tony Abbott's premiership for giving the guy an Australian knighthood. Still and all, he's kept the show on the road in an age hostile to the monarchical principle, and one which has seen the crowns of almost all his cousins come tumbling throughout Europe.
Yet he's still here. I chanced to dine at Buckingham Palace on the eve of the Australian referendum on whether to become a republic. On my transatlantic flight, having been holed up in the White Mountains too long, I thought I ought to refresh myself on Court etiquette: it's "Your Majesty" and "Your Royal Highness" on first greeting, followed by "Ma'am" and "Sir" subsequently. I was all on top of it and ready for my close-up, but made the mistake of taking a complicated phone call just before leaving my hotel and arrived at the Palace porte-cochÃ¨re running a little late and somewhat distracted. The Duke of Edinburgh came toward me from across the room, and I stuck my hand out and barked, "Hi!".
He took it well enough and muttered "Hi" in return (no exclamation) before handing me off to Princess Alexandra's husband. It's important to be able to adapt, and in the descent into a demotic age he's mostly kept his footing, notwithstanding the occasional strain. "Can't they switch his microphone off?" was his reaction to a long set by Elton John - although he is said, at a reception at the White House, to have found "that song about the bloody muskrats" - the Captain and Tennille's "Muskrat Love" - not without its charms. For a prince, he's prone to loose lips â€” see today's Daily Telegraph for a round-up of his greatest gaffes â€” and he doesn't suffer fools gladly, which is a handicap in the Royal biz.
At Buck House that night, we discussed the European Union. And all I can say, without betraying confidences, is that the events of the last year would not have dismayed those of us around the table that evening. As a Canadian, I was somewhat distracted by the referendum Down Under, which I kept trying to slip into the conversation. But the Duke was inscrutable on that front - or perhaps, as I now think of it, quietly confident about victory. Toward the end, as he walked us to the door before my carriage turned back into a pumpkin, I made an offhand remark contrasting the 1901 Aussie constitution with the 1867 Canadian one, and the subject evidently engaged him, because he launched into a very well informed disquisition on the differences between the two. There were a half-dozen or so of us at dinner that night - an earl, a viscount, a baron, a knight, etc, plus a plain old mister (me). I'd assumed upon acceptance of my invitation that we guests would be there as unpaid jesters to amuse our Royal hosts. But, in fact, HRH was a quickwitted chap, and we were hard put to keep up with him.
One of my fellow diners, bemoaning the lack of agricultural workers in Britain, explained that his farm now brought in young Australians and South Africans, who were able to make ninety-to-a-hundred quid a day (about Â£60,000 a year) picking onions.
"Crying all the way to the bank?" said the Duke.
I thought that was a rather good line. Happy retirement.
~Tonight, Thursday, I'll be joining Tucker Carlson live on Fox News at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific. Tomorrow I'll be back behind the Golden EIB Microphone guest-hosting for Rush on Open Line Friday.