Prince Philip: an HR reformer of his time?

Photo: Alamy

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, at the age of 99, will be the cause of national mourning in the UK and beyond and has already seen hundreds of articles launched detailing his second world war exploits in the Royal Navy, his various ‘gaffes’ and his vigorous work on behalf of myriad charities.

But one of the less remarked upon aspects of Philip’s long life was his work modernising the monarchy, acting almost as a quasi head of HR and facilities at Buckingham Palace from the early 1950s onwards.

He remained in the navy until 1952 when King George VI died. He was already a member of the privy council but felt distinctly out of the loop when it came to decision-making within the royal household. As the Queen’s consort, he said, “There was no precedent. If I asked somebody ‘what do you expect me to do?’ they all looked blank – they had no idea, nobody had much idea,” he said. His frustration was also expressed over the establishment’s rejection of his bid to create a House of Mountbatten rather than House of Windsor. “I am nothing but a bloody amoeba. I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children,” he reportedly said.

Footmen preferred to telephones

Nonetheless, there was a lot to change at Buckingham Palace and in his unofficial HR/facilities capacity he set about some much needed modernisation. He fought against the Queen Mother during his successful campaign to have telephones installed in the Palace. She preferred using footmen for the passing of messages.

He pushed for the Queen’s coronation in 1953 to be televised live and behind the scenes tackled absurdly outdated behavior in the palace he regarded as stuffy. He was the first royal to do a TV interview. Such enthusiasms brought him into conflict not only with older royals and their courtiers but Winston Churchill on some protocol issues.

I am nothing but a bloody amoeba. I am the only man in the country not allowed to give his name to his own children” – Prince Philip

During the 1950s Philip saw the dangers of a monarchy falling out of step with modern society and finishing up as a museum piece.

A few decades later he became the first royal to have computers in his office. His growing influence at Buckingham Palace would have brought him into conflict with a traditional court and yet despite never seeing state papers and only having an official role as a privy counsellor he made a huge impact.

Bloody daft

Philip, with the Queen, was foremost among those who were behind the ending of the practice of presenting debutantes at court in 1958. Princess Margaret supported this but possibly for the wrong reasons: “We had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in,” she said. Philip, however, is thought to have viewed the tradition as sexist although he wouldn’t have used the word. He did however call it “bloody daft”.

In another reform that modern HR practitioners would approve of, he initiated informal palace lunches to which guests from a variety of backgrounds were invited and broadened garden parties to include professional people, not just the usual toffs.

“He wanted to make the royal household and the monarchy less stuffy, not to have so much formality everywhere,” said Charles Anson, who was the Queen’s press secretary from 1990 to 1997. “I think he was influenced by his naval career. He wanted things to be friendly within a disciplined environment, not formal and overly stiff.”

He added: “He was an enormous help and took a big interest in how things were run day-to-day. Sometimes when I went to see the Queen with a work matter, she’d say ‘have you talked to Prince Philip?’ If I said ‘not yet’, she’d say, ‘run it past him’, or ‘talk to him about it’.”

He wanted to make the royal household and the monarchy less stuffy, not to have so much formality everywhere” – Charles Anson, former Queen’s press secretary

However, modern HR practitioners may not be so approving of some of his famous gaffes. In 1995 he asked a Scottish driving instructor: “How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?”

Throwing spears

In 2002, during a visit to Australia, he asked Indigenous Australian businessman Ivan Brim, “Do you still throw spears at each other?”. It caused little offence though, with Brim later telling the press: “I’d call [the question] naive. To me he was just a bit of a larrikin – a joker.”

Most famously, in 1986 on a royal visit to China, he told a group of British students: “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.” The UK press had enormous fun with the comment, producing headlines such as “So wong” and “The Great Wally of China” but it later emerged that in China it had not caused great offence as Chinese youngsters were often told jokingly not to stay too long in the West, in case they should go “round-eyed” and Philip had merely turned this saying round.

Workers wondering whether there will be a bank holiday on the day of Philip’s funeral will be disappointed to learn that according to tradition an extra holiday is only granted for the actual monarch’s funeral.

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