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Prince Philip and Institutions

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II leaves with Prince Philip after a service of thanksgiving for her 90th birthday at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, June 10, 2016. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

An article in The Times of London on the late Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II for 73 years, begins as follows:

“He looked,” recalled his aide and friend Michael Parker, “as if you’d dropped half the world on him.” Prince Philip and the young Princess Elizabeth had traveled to Kenya at the beginning of 1952 at the start of a royal tour, standing in for King George VI, who was too ill to travel. News reached them of the King’s sudden death, aged 56. [Philip’s] wife was 25 and he was 30. Born to privilege but not to duty, he would now and for the years to follow embrace duty. His life had changed key. Until its end he would be a tireless consort to the Queen. It was a responsibility that he had not expected so young, yet which thereafter he shouldered with energy, originality and flair.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, passed away last Friday at the age of 99. The public reaction to his death has, to my mind, been extraordinary. What was it about the husband of the British queen that has touched so many?

I don’t have a full answer to that complicated question, but let me share with you one thought: He did his duty.

Even after marrying the daughter of the king and heir to the throne, Philip longed for and expected many years of relatively normal life, relishing the prospect of a career in the Navy. But that’s not the hand he was dealt. Instead, he spent the final three-quarters of a century of his life doing what was required and expected of him, living up to his responsibilities, working tirelessly on behalf of his wife and the nations for which she serves as head of state.

That kind of selfless devotion to duty is all too rare in public life today. It seems to have resonated.

All this has made me think of my colleague Yuval Levin’s excellent book, A Time to Build. Levin writes of a great change in the role of institutions in public life. Rather than letting them form and structure the individuals associated with them, institutions today are used as performative platforms. To take one example, it used to be common for people to get elected to Congress and to allow Congress to mold and shape them into legislators and public servants. Today, it is all too common for members of Congress to use their office merely as a platform to build their personal brand.

Prince Philip bucked this trend. Levin’s book helps to understand why that is important.

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