10 August 2017

Consorting With Power

Prince Philip and others.

by Neil Tidmarsh

The Shaw Sheet congratulates Prince Philip on his retirement at the age of 96 after 65 years of public service. It also congratulates him on defying the Daily Telegraph’s account of his death; a rough draft of his obituary was somehow published in its on-line version. Fake news indeed.

How is he spending his well-earned leisure, the Shaw Sheet wonders?  Studying history, perhaps, and reflecting with sympathy and relief, now that it’s all over, on the careers of other royal consorts which didn’t end quite so happily: Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, for instance, who died from over-work and illness at the tragically early age of 42; or Edward IV’s queen, Elizabeth Woodville, who was charged with witchcraft and narrowly escaped being burnt at the stake; or Bloody Queen Mary’s husband, Philip II of Spain, who lost England and his Armada to Mary’s sister Elizabeth and had his beard singed by Sir Francis Drake to boot; or Mary Queen of Scot’s husbands – her first, Lord Darnley, who was murdered, and her second, the Earl of Bothwell, who died in miserable captivity having been found guilty of Lord Darnley’s murder.

No doubt Prince Philip would have been reading this week’s newspapers with sympathy and relief, too, full as they have been with other unhappy tales of consorts from round the world.

Poor Mrs Macron. The wife of the French president has traditionally been granted a recognised status as First Lady and the resources (a staff of half a dozen aides and a budget of half a million euros) to undertake the duties which go with it. But both position and resources have always been unofficial. This week President Macron sensibly proposed making them official, so that the First Lady’s duties could be defined and formalised, she could be made answerable to the citizens of France, and the cost to the tax payer made transparent.  Who could argue with any of that?

Plenty of people, as it happened.  Just under 300,000 French citizens signed an online petition opposing the idea, and a YouGov poll a few months ago found that almost 70% of people shared that opinion.  Politicians accused Macron of hypocrisy, as he has recently initiated legislation which bans MPs from employing relatives as political assistants paid by the state.  So President Macron abandoned the attempt to formalise his wife’s position by law, and will simply publish a ‘first lady’s charter’ instead.  And Mrs Macron will run an office just like her predecessors, with a chief, a press officer and two secretaries apparently spending who knows how much of the state’s money on who knows what.

In Denmark, a sculptor has been at work for seven years on a silver statue of elephants which will carry two glass sarcophagi and will be buried in Roskilde Cathedral as the last resting place of the current Danish royal couple.  This week, however, Queen Margrethe II’s consort, Prince Henrik, announced that he does not wish to be buried with her.  As far as he is concerned, she can be buried in the royal mausoleum on her own.

This is the latest of a number of protests from Prince Henrik, a French nobleman, about his position as consort to the Danish queen.  He is 83 years old and the queen is 77; they have been married for fifty years. For five decades he has been complaining about his unequal, second-class status (unequal and second class to the queen, that is) and petitioning for the title of king.  He retired last year, renouncing his title of prince, and now spends most of his time away from the queen at his chateau and vineyard – Chateau de Caix – in France.  One title he does value, however, is that of honorary president of the Danish Dachshund Club. He is a dog-lover, keeping dachshunds himself, and even relished a meal of dog-meat in Vietnam when he was a young man.  “It tastes like goat or veal” he declared.

Also this week, the wife of President Maduro of Venezuela won an official position for herself by being voted onto the new assembly in the recent election.  She will find herself in friendly company – the candidates for the 545 seats in the assembly were largely hand-picked by her husband and his government.  Indeed, it’s very much a family affair, with the president’s son joining her as well. It was a shame her two nephews weren’t able to take part in the election, too, but unfortunately they’re in prison in the USA, having been caught smuggling cocaine.

Never mind, she and her son and the rest of the new assembly set to work with a vengeance in their first week, ordering the removal of the attorney general Luisa Ortega (previously a Maduro loyalist but a critic of the regime since last March who now claims that the president is “overseeing state terrorism”), freezing her assets and forbidding her from leaving the country. The assembly has also begun to order the arrest and imprisonment of other opposition figures, such as mayors critical of the regime and judges sworn in by the rival, legitimate, opposition-controlled parliament.

Being a president’s consort is clearly a serious business (no, I can’t be bothered to check if Melania Trump’s range of jewellery is still advertised on the White House website). Lady Macbeth is probably as good a role model as any (though things didn’t end well for her, remember). Or Claire Underwood (I’m still only on series three of House of Cards, so I don’t know how things ended for her – but not well either, I’d guess). Nevertheless, anyone hitched to someone whose “state is kingly” would be better advised to consider John Milton’s comment “They also serve who only stand and wait”, as Prince Philip appears to have done.


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