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Prince Philip: Britain's Gaffe-Prone Duke Turns 90

After more than 60 years of marriage to Queen Elizabeth, the man of the House of Windsor reaches a major milestone. But what makes Britain's insult-prone Duke of Edinburgh so surly? Tom Sykes reports.

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Back in the 1980s, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh and the queen’s husband who celebrates his 90th birthday today, was portrayed in the British puppet satire show Spitting Image as the ranting, right-wing driver of a London taxi. Back then, “Phil the Greek,” and his outrageous “gaffes”--“And what exotic part of the world do you come from?” he once asked Tory politician Lord Taylor of Warwick, whose parents are Jamaican (and who replied, “Birmingham”)--were still considered a national embarrassment.

In the intervening decades, however, something rather bizarre has happened. Prince Philip has mysteriously metamorphosed into a national treasure instead. While British society in general has become more tolerant and inclusive, a hard core of Brits has made Prince Philip the talisman for a certain brand of unreconstructed British “humor.”

The book Duke of Hazard: The Wit and Wisdom of Prince Philip, published in 2006, continues to sell by the truckload in the U.K., and, if you scroll down to the comments page at the bottom of this post, you’re bound to find some patriotic Brits making one or all of the following points: that Prince Philip is a marvelous illustration of “traditional” British wit, that his plain speaking is a welcome antidote to “political correctness gone mad,” that when they met him once he was the salt of the earth, that he’s a supremely intelligent bloke who tells it like it is, that he’s a regular trooper, unafraid of causing offense and we will miss him when he’s gone.

It’s a seductive argument, particularly because some of Prince Philip’s quips can be quite funny and cut straight to the point, e.g., on a trip to Canada in 1976: "We don't come here for our health. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves."

It’s also a load of rubbish. All too frequently his comments are simply insulting. On his recent trip to Dublin, for example, he asked the master brewer at Guinness whether the drink was brewed using water from the city’s once-polluted River Liffey – it was a joke, but Phil seemed to find it much funnier than anyone else did.

Really, what could inspire a man accustomed to life in the public eye to tell a factory owner--on camera--that his fuse box looked like it had been “installed by an Indian?” Why would you ask a Scottish driving instructor if he was able to keep “the natives off the booze long enough to pass the test?” Why would you say to a woman in a wheelchair, “Do people trip over you?”

And why doesn’t someone tell the prince to button his lip?

The answer to the last question is simple enough; everyone at Buckingham Palace is terrified of Philip. Princess Diana said that all his children were frightened of Philip. Sarah Ferguson (whom he loathes for a) being common and b) the damage she has done to “the firm” as he calls the royal family) described him to one confidant of my acquaintance as a “tyrant” who ruled the House of Windsor with a rod of iron.

Philip’s relationship with his son, Charles, which was charted by royal biographer Graham Turner, is famously bad. Turner claimed in his 2001 biography that Philip thinks Charles is “precious, extravagant, and lacking in dedication and discipline.”

Conventional wisdom is that lifelong tensions between father and son became a full-fledged rift when Charles, against Philip’s advice, married Diana Spencer. But the royal writer for The Daily Mirror James Whittaker depicted a fascinating scene that occurred in 1976. Charles’ “honorary grandfather” Lord Mountbatten (when Philip wed Princess Elizabeth, heir to the British throne, in 1947, he took British citizenship and changed his name to Mountbatten) had just been murdered by the IRA, and Philip publicly humiliated his son at a family lunch where the funeral was being planned.

Philip told Charles that Mountbatten was dead and it was no good “snivelling” about this fact. Charles left the room in tears.

Philip apparently then told the shocked Mountbatten family, “If there's any crying to be done, I want it to happen within this house, in front of his family, not in public. He must be toughened up, right now."

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Some say this is tough love, others say Philip is a bully who is skilled at justifying his behavior. Like many bullies, Philip carries with him a host of insecurities dating back to his childhood.

He was born at the Greek royal residence on Corfu, Mon Repos, on June 10, 1921, the youngest child and only son of Prince Andrew of Greece and Princess Alice of Battenberg. In December 1922, the Greek royals were expelled and 18-month-old Philip was evacuated in a British warship. He was carried into exile in a makeshift crib made from an old orange box.

His father subsequently abandoned the family for the gambling tables of Monte Carlo while his mother had a nervous breakdown and went into a convent, leaving Philip to shuttle between different relatives in different European countries. He was educated at a notoriously harsh Scottish boarding school called Gordonstoun. "Gordonstoun, even with its harsh cold-shower regime, was the most supportive community that Philip ever knew," someone from his circle said.

But back to that thorny question: Why does Philip insist on making his extraordinary remarks when on official and unofficial business?

Maybe being Buckingham Palace’s in-house diva makes up for all that walking behind his wife this fiercely paternalistic man has to put up with.

But the simple answer to the riddle of the gaffes seems to be that he gets a kick out of being the center of attention.

In 1996, after a gunman walked into a Scottish school and killed 16 children and their teacher, the possession of handguns was banned in the U.K.

Philip saw this as a gross overreaction and gave a radio interview shortly after the ban came into effect and commented, “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?”

It was a typically insensitive comment, but, what was really telling was his remark, off-air, to the interviewer afterward. "That will really set the cat among the pigeons, won't it?" he said.

For Prince Philip, it seems, anything is worse than being ignored.