x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Duke and Queen grand examples of husband and wife

The state visit to Abu Dhabi next week of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, will give the people of the UAE a chance to see a great and grand double act.

The state visit to Abu Dhabi next week of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, will give the people of the UAE a chance to see a great and grand double act.

The visit is a chance to reflect on the character and achievements of a couple almost peerless in the dignity and ease with which they comport themselves on the world stage. One biographer has summed up the relationship as "she wears the crown; he wears the trousers". The Queen herself underscores her respect and affection for her consort in her abiding opening line in countless speeches, "My husband and I", putting him first as head of the family.

As a child, when her father unexpectedly became king, it was said that Elizabeth began ardently praying for a brother. Her prayers were not answered but still, on her 21st birthday in South Africa, she pledged "my whole life, however long or short, will be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family".

By all accounts she has been as good as her word. "Our great imperial family" is now neither great, imperial nor a family, but the 54-nation Commonwealth, comprising almost a third of the membership of the UN, survives and recognises the Queen as its head.

Her coronation day, June 2, 1953, was propitious as it was announced that a team of British and New Zealand mountaineers placed the Union Jack on the peak of Mount Everest just four days before. After the grim deprivation of post-war Britain, a new Elizabethan Age was predicted. But this was an unrealistic dream of another era: the Queen would not reshape her world but became, and has remained, a figure of decency, stability and dependability in a changing world.

The first few decades of her reign seemed spent seeing the empire dissolve as colonies became countries, but the Commonwealth that replaced it has proved to be an egalitarian, humanitarian and stabilising forum for the world and an enduring passion for the Queen. She sees it as her family of nations and although she has no power, she has influence.

John Major, one of her 12 prime ministers, recalls telling the Queen of a sticky time at a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting with one leader. "He's very fond of fishing; try that," Her Majesty advised. The PM did, he said, "and it worked".

The Queen has proven to be the ultimate diplomat, a dutiful host and intrepid traveller. She bravely smiled as she greeted and housed Romania's despotic Ceausescus in 1978 (the day before his execution, she stripped him of his honorary knighthood). We saw her suffering a volatile African king who made her wait in her Daimler and later leave her alone on a dais. When her foreign minister despaired, she simply said: "Stay cool, keep smiling, do nothing."

As for the duke, the western press has long delighted in reporting gaffes and japes on tour, but those who have observed him closely, say that the only way Philip can stay interested in the endless audiences, line-ups and crowd encounters - his life measured out in handshakes and small talk - is to stir and challenge those he meets. He does not share his wife's extraordinary control, but this combination of composure and badinage - his vigour, her reserve - somehow invests the couple with a happy balance.

The duke's life might have seemed one of privilege and pleasure, but it was not so. He was born a prince but his arrival into the world - on a Corfu dining table at Mon Repos (French for my resting place) - was an ironic birthplace for the peripateticlife that followed for a time. His father, Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark, and his mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg, suffered the uncertainty of exile, which made their youngest child and only son, fiercely independent and keen to excel.

His marriage to Princess Elizabeth was not a dynastic arrangement; it was a love match. Some stuffy courtiers at the time of their betrothal were disdainfully concerned about this wild young man. But as the duke reminded them, he was no interloper: his mother, a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, was born at Windsor Castle, the heart of the British royal family.

He brought a keen intelligence and modernising influence to the monarchy. He has always seen his role as "supporting the Queen". And that is exactly what he has done. The duke has been a constant, public support to his wife as sovereign. What's more, she appears to be happy, after six decades, in her husband's company.

Since the death of Sheikh Saqr of Ras al Khaimah, Elizabeth II is, after King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, the world's longest reigning hereditary ruler. She put things in perspective when, at their first meeting, she told Tony Blair that she was Queen before he was born. David Cameron, her 12th prime minister, is only 10 years older than her eldest grandson.

Although Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, was a crowd-pleaser, her daughter has resisted playing to an audience. The real person behind the spectacles and tiara remains a mystery to most of her subjects. This is consistent with Walter Bagehot's warning: "We must not let daylight in upon the magic." Duty has always been at the expense of emotion. To show emotion was to expose her and compromise her role, even in private.

Yet behind a formal mask, there is a droll sense of humour, more than a hint of the Queen Mother's wit. At a garden party a young guest's mobile phone began to ring as she was speaking with the Queen. The girl was in an agony of embarrassment only somewhat relieved by the Queen, who said: "You'd better answer that. It might be someone important."

Her gift as a mimic is also unexpected. She apparently did a brilliant impersonation of the Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, and her Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, was superb.

Like any family, the Windsors have had their share of tragedy, disappointments and scrapes but unlike almost any family, it has suffered them under the relentless glare of publicity. But the coming years herald happier days, with the wedding of her grandson, Prince William, the 90th birthday of the duke of Edinburgh, and in 2012, her diamond jubilee.

The writer Cyril Connolly once wrote: "The true index of a man's character is the health of his wife." So as the duke, in his 90th year, and the Queen, in her 85th, reach our shores, one cannot resist saying, "Long live the Queen and her duke".

* The National