Plato? Aristotle? Aquinas, Burke or Kirk? Go for it. I’ll hold your coat, keep the cocktails chilled or back you up in a fight. But do forgive me if, just for a while at least, my favourite philosopher is Prince Philip, who just turned 90.
In British and American media, a gaffe is when you say something of which the chattering classes, the political-correctness Nazis and media do not approve. British newspapers are awash in Prince Philip’s alleged “gaffes” which are often nothing of the kind. Whether you find his comments funny or offensive, they are quite intentional and he may be the last surviving subject of his wife who speaks his own mind.
Sometimes the Duke of Edinburgh is just fed up, and he suffers more social engagements in a week than you do in a year: a holiday ‘get-away’ in Guantanamo being water-boarded by Dick Cheney may be relaxing by comparison. Often he kebabs some trendy leftist holy cow. But his so-called gaffes are usually very funny and always conservative—and we do like the irascible, do we not?
Visiting Tonga in the South Pacific decades ago, their very large and very dark king got the better of him: the king mentioned that his family had English blood and when a puzzled Philip asked how, his host retorted “one of my ancestors ate Captain Cook.” Philip roared with laughter and they were said to be lifelong friends thereafter. I suspect that the ‘funny foreigners’ at the pointy-end of the Prince’s jests often do not mind a bit.
Britain’s The Independent, which, together with The Guardian, are newspapers for the permanently indignant, published 90 so-called “gaffes” on his birthday. Here are just a few so you can decide for yourselves, but I wish that I had said them first.
“Ghastly.” Prince Philip’s opinion of Beijing, during a 1986 tour of China.
“Ghastly.” Prince Philip’s opinion of Stoke-on-Trent, as offered to the city’s Labour MP Joan Walley at Buckingham Palace in 1997.
“Deaf? If you’re near there, no wonder you are deaf.” Said to a group of deaf children standing near a Caribbean steel drum band in 2000.
“You managed not to get eaten then?” To a British student who had trekked in Papua New Guinea, during an official visit in 1998.
“How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” Asked of a Scottish driving instructor in 1995.
“Damn fool question!” To BBC journalist Caroline Wyatt at a banquet at the Elysée Palace after she asked Queen Elizabeth if she was enjoying her stay in Paris in 2006.
“It looks as though it was put in by an Indian.” The Prince’s verdict of a fuse box during a tour of a Scottish factory in August 1999. He later clarified his comment: “I meant to say cowboys.” I just got my cowboys and Indians mixed up.”
“We don’t come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves.” During a trip to Canada in 1976.
“A few years ago, everybody was saying we must have more leisure, everyone’s working too much. Now that everybody’s got more leisure time they are complaining they are unemployed. People don’t seem to make up their minds what they want.” A man of the people shares insight into the recession that gripped Britain in 1981.
“British women can’t cook.” Winning the hearts of the Scottish Women’s Institute in 1961.
“It was part of the fortunes of war. We didn’t have counsellors rushing around every time somebody let off a gun, asking ‘Are you all right—are you sure you don’t have a ghastly problem?’ You just got on with it!” On the issue of stress counselling for servicemen in a TV documentary marking the 50th Anniversary of V-J Day in 1995.
“What do you gargle with—pebbles?” To Tom Jones, after the Royal Variety Performance, 1969.
“It’s a vast waste of space.” Philip entertained guests in 2000 at the reception of a new £18m British Embassy in Berlin, which the Queen had just opened.
“If it has four legs and it is not a chair, if it has got two wings and it flies but is not an aeroplane and if it swims and it is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.” Said to a World Wildlife Fund meeting in 1986.
“Do you know they have eating dogs for the anorexic now?” To a wheelchair-bound Susan Edwards, and her guide dog Natalie in 2002.
“Get me a beer. I don’t care what kind it is, just get me a beer!” On being offered the finest Italian wines by PM Giuliano Amato at a dinner in Rome in 2000.
“I would like to go to Russia very much—although the bastards murdered half my family.” In 1967, asked if he would like to visit the Soviet Union.
“If a cricketer, for instance, suddenly decided to go into a school and batter a lot of people to death with a cricket bat, which he could do very easily, I mean, are you going to ban cricket bats?” In a Radio 4 interview shortly after the Dunblane shootings in 1996. He said to the interviewer off-air afterwards: “That will really set the cat among the pigeons, won’t it?”
“Oh, it’s you that owns that ghastly car is it? We often see it when driving to Windsor Castle.” To neighbour Elton John after hearing he had sold his Watford FC-themed Aston Martin in 2001.
“A pissometer?” The Prince renames the piezometer water gauge demonstrated by Australian farmer Steve Filelti in 2000.
“Young people are the same as they always were. They are just as ignorant.” At the 50th anniversary of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme.
“Your country is one of the most notorious centres of trading in endangered species.” Accepting a conservation award in Thailand in 1991.
“Aren’t most of you descended from pirates?” In the Cayman Islands, 1994.
“The French don’t know how to cook breakfast.” After a breakfast of bacon, eggs, smoked salmon, kedgeree, croissants and pain au chocolat – from Gallic chef Regis Crépy – in 2002.
“And what exotic part of the world do you come from?” Asked in 1999 of Tory politician Lord Taylor of Warwick, whose parents are Jamaican. He replied: “Birmingham.”
“I wish he’d turn the microphone off!” The Prince expresses his opinion of Elton John’s performance at the 73rd Royal Variety Show, 2001.
“Where’s the Southern Comfort?” On being presented with a hamper of southern goods by the American ambassador in London in 1999.
“You have mosquitoes. I have the Press.” To the matron of a hospital in the Caribbean in 1966.
Philip: “Who are you?”
Simon Kelner: “I’m the editor-in-chief of The Independent, Sir.”
Philip: “What are you doing here?”
Kelner: “You invited me.”
Philip: “Well, you didn’t have to come!”
An exchange at a press reception to mark the Golden Jubilee in 2002.
“People think there’s a rigid class system here, but dukes have even been known to marry chorus girls. Some have even married Americans.” In 2000.
“Can you tell the difference between them?” On being told by President Obama that he’d had breakfast with the leaders of the UK, China and Russia.
“Well, you didn’t design your beard too well, did you? You really must try better with your beard.” To a young fashion designer at a Buckingham Palace in 2009.
“So you’re responsible for the kind of crap Channel Four produces!” Speaking to then chairman of the channel, Michael Bishop, in 1962.
“Dontopedalogy is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, a science which I have practiced for a good many years.” Address to the General Dental Council, quoted in Time in 1960.
“Tolerance is the one essential ingredient … You can take it from me that the Queen has the quality of tolerance in abundance.” Advice for a successful marriage in 1997.
“It makes you all look like Dracula’s daughters!” To pupils at Queen Anne’s School in Reading, who wear blood-red uniforms, in 1998.
“All money nowadays seems to be produced with a natural homing instinct for the Treasury.” Bemoaning the rate of British tax in 1963.
“If it doesn’t fart or eat hay, she isn’t interested.” Of his daughter, Princess Anne.
“They’re not mating are they?” Spotting two robots bumping in to one another at the Science Museum in 2000.
“It looks like a tart’s bedroom.” On seeing plans for the Duke and then Duchess of York’s house at Sunninghill Park.
“Reichskanzler.” Prince Philip used Hitler’s title to address German chancellor Helmut Kohl during a speech in Hanover in 1997.
“Bugger the table plan, give me my dinner!” Showing his impatience to be fed at a dinner party in 2004.
“What about Tom Jones? He’s made a million and he’s a bloody awful singer.” Response to a comment at a small-business lunch about how difficult it is in Britain to get rich.
“This could only happen in a technical college.” On getting stuck in a lift between two floors at the Heriot Watt University, 1958.
“My son…er…owns them.” On being asked on a Canadian tour whether he knew the Scilly Isles.
“Well, that’s more than you know about anything else then.” Speaking, a touch condescendingly, to Michael Buerk, after being told by the BBC newsreader that he did know about the Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Awards in 2004.
Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.