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As ‘Old Britain’ begins to pass away, US could take some cues

On Friday, Buckingham Palace announced that Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, passed away at 99. His death marks the drawing of an epoch’s curtains that will be completed by the passing of his spouse, the Queen. The political turmoil of the past five years — Brexit, Mr Trump’s election, a virtual constitutional crisis in Britain, transatlantic partisan gridlock, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic and the events of this past January — are the markers of a political, cultural, and social transition.

The world into which we are entering is uncertain, dangerous, and dark. Cultural tensions within Western society are poised to trigger a large-scale social fracture. The effect seems to have filtered down into the rest of the Western world. Northern Ireland was wracked by riots of a scale not seen since the Troubles. Israel remains in political stasis, its people deciding for Netanyahu as Prime Minister, but against his party’s majority. France’s renewed lockdown will prompt more unrest. And Britain, as it exits lockdown, may face another political crisis, as Boris Johnson maneuvers between those in his party who desire power and an opposition still unsure of its radical or centrist identity.

Meanwhile, China is on the march, threatening to absorb Taiwan, and virtually daring the West to oppose it. Russia and Iran continue their hybrid conquests, with the former watching on as Westerners — particularly Americans in the midst of cancel culture, corporate politicization, restrictions on free speech, and an educational system riddled by self-hate — tear themselves to pieces.

The Duke of Edinburgh reminded us of a different era. He was born into a world scarred by the horrors of the Great War, but into a family of European royalty. His itinerant upbringing was shaped by international events, first in Greece, from which his family was exiled after the 1922 coup, and then in Germany, from which his Jewish schoolteacher had to flee. His mother lost her mind and was consigned to an asylum, while his father, a Greek general and prince, died bitter and alone in France in 1944.

Philip’s upbringing, however, bore the marks of Victorian culture and sensibilities. His maternal grandfather, Prince Louis of Battenberg, was of German extraction, but settled in the United Kingdom, and became a distinguished naval officer and First Sea Lord. Philip also chose a naval life, graduating from Dartmouth in 1939 at the top of his class. Philip served as an officer throughout World War II, most notably saving the destroyer HMS Wallace from enemy bomber attack during the 1943 invasion of Sicily.

Philip continued his service after the war, ultimately being promoted to lieutenant commander and serving as commander of the frigate HMS Magpie. Absent historical events, he would have continued his naval career, likely rising to flag rank. His ambition may well have been to serve as First Sea Lord, the office from which his grandfather had been ignominiously forced to depart in October 1914. Perhaps he may have achieved it, directing the Royal Navy through the mid-Cold War. Perhaps he might have been Thatcher’s Knight in Shining Gold Braid, rather than Admiral Henry Leach, the old war commander who convinced the Iron Lady to fight for the Falklands. He would surely have risen to the occasion.

In the event his naval career ended in 1952, when his wife, Elizabeth, became Queen. Of course, the young prince knew his fate when he married Elizabeth in 1947 — after Edward VIII’s abdication, Elizabeth became heir to her father, King George VI.

The monarchy is an institution, not a person, not a family, not a household. It is the last true example of sovereign representation in the modern world. It demonstrates the power of culture and tradition, the durability of a political system developed over centuries. It is the final marker of empire.

Of late, empire has become a blasphemous term, a word that connotes racial stratification and callous indifference to other cultures and traditions. But there was an age when empire — the British Empire — represented the power of a society driven by ambition and conviction. Conviction in its right to rule, not because of its racial superiority, but because under its banner no man could be a slave, and no corner of the world was inaccessible to he who was determined to reach it. Indeed, the genius of the British Empire stemmed from its marriage of power and justice. We in the English-speaking world owe our moral worldview, our conviction that injustice and savagery cannot be tolerated wherever it may occur, to this empire.

Philip was a product of the Old Europe. This Europe did unleash upon the world two ruinous wars, and more often than not accepted the butchery and pillage of non-European, non-white, non-Christian civilisations. But this Europe also produced the technological, philosophical, and moral perspectives that allow us to live in free representative democracies, engage in public debate, and criticise our own governments. The moral universe we inhabit owes far more — for good or ill — to the Old Europe from which Philip emerged than many today choose to believe.

The Old Europe, and even more so, the Old Britain, produced a unique personality, one suited to hard times. Victorian society was decadent and stratified, preoccupied with gossip in a manner akin to the modern tabloid reader, and unwilling to accept those without the proper pedigree as cultured or refined. It nevertheless gave birth to a nation that fought two world wars and did in fact pay any price and bear any burden for the cause of liberty. For all its commercialism and wealth, British society remains remarkably simple, and jealous of its simple liberties — see the vitriolic demands for pub re-opening and live attendance at sporting events for confirmation of this obvious fact. This simplicity allowed it to suffer an unimaginable burden, standing alone against Hitlerite tyranny, virtually without question or complaint.

This society survived through its ideals and because of its symbols, the monarchy foremost among the latter. 

Britons will soon be at a crossroads. Scots will choose whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or attempt to go it alone, however imprudent the latter choice may be. Northern Irish Protestants face the possibility of absorption into the Catholic south — to be sure, a proposition far less dangerous than it would have been 50 years ago, but one that would destroy the independent character of a centuries-old community.

And Britain may have to choose between constitutional monarchy and republicanism. Indeed, the worst-kept secret in British society today is that, after Queen Elizabeth II’s death, those favoring republicanism will make their case to the people.

Perhaps Britons will remain attached to the representative sovereign: as it stands, just over half of the United Kingdom supports retaining the institution. But support has declined over time, and scandals like the current Meghan and Harry royal kerfuffle will not help.

Philip’s death therefore may mark the beginning of Britain’s transformation into a republic, and the end of the world’s iconic royal office.

Britons should consider their options with care. In the United States’ politically weakened immune condition today, the old saying that ‘when America sneezes Britain catches a cold’ is reversed.

The future does not look good. The West has forgotten how close cataclysm lies to our door. The spirit of Old Britain, the acceptance of duty no matter the cost, may prove useful soon. With the exception of a very few brave lights in Congress, such courage is already in short supply.

Seth Cropsey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a U.S. naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy.

Harry Halem, a research associate at Hudson and graduate student at the London School of Economics, contributed to this op-ed.

Tags 21st century in the United States British Empire in World War II England House of Windsor National security Prince Philip Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh Queen Elizabeth II

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