Rupert Myers is a barrister and writer.
The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has been felt around the world. An inspiration for us all to do more, his death invites reflection and the celebration of a great man. A dutiful public servant who filled his unforgiving minutes with distance run for Queen and country, the Duke of Edinburgh was a fixture in all of our lives.
With his wit, style, and work ethic he epitomised the greatest generation, of which he was a leading man. For this reason, we must honour him suitably, and to do that we need to shake things up. It’s time for the experiments in public art on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square to end, and replaced instead with a statue of the Duke.
A keen sailor who went from being one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy at just 21, to his appointment as Lord High Admiral a decade ago, Prince Philip would be at home in a square named after Britain’s most famous naval success – plinth pals with General Sir Charles James Napier, Major General Sir Henry Havelock and George IV. Forever placing him next to Horatio Nelson would be a fitting tribute for a man who played his part in World War Two at sea and witnessed the surrender of the Japanese.
Some might cry out that London would lose the contemporary artworks that are displayed on the fourth plinth. Beyond Rachel Whiteread’s beguiling ‘Monument’ – an upside down transparent resin copy of the plinth itself – and Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’, which saw 2400 members of the public each spend an hour on the plinth, the other installations have been highly missable. London is awash with brilliant spaces for the display of contemporary art, and Sir John Mortimer’s recommendation of the fourth plinth as the home for a rolling programme of temporary artworks has long since gone stale.
Many on the internet would be enraged by the erection of a statue to the Duke of Edinburgh in such a prominent location. “The country has reached its quota for statues of racist, old white men” as one person replied when I floated the suggestion on Twitter.
These people couldn’t be more wrong. Philippos Andreou reached this country as a Greek Orthodox child refugee in a cot made from a fruit box. He became the longest-serving consort in the most successful reign of any monarch, and helped shepherd our country through war, peace, and monumental change.
To judge him on the colour of his skin, or on a few terrible comments in the course of a lifetime of service may be the sort of lazy, reductive thinking we have come to expect from social media, but it does an utter disservice to his life. Try getting through 22,219 solo engagements at which you are expected to be entertaining and interesting, surrounded by the world’s press, without saying a few things you might regret.
The Duke took on exile, poverty, his mother’s schizophrenia, and personal tragedy, yet not only served as consort to the Queen but founded an award scheme that helped millions of young people find meaning, purpose, and discover the benefit of the great outdoors.
If he isn’t the sort of person we should be erecting statues to, then it’s time to do away with statues. So long as we put them up to anyone, we will be putting them up to brilliant people who lived flawed and imperfect lives whose records don’t regularly conform to the changing standards of modern life, as even a cursory glance at the lives of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King can confirm. Statues don’t have to represent an endorsement of everything contained within a life, but merely the greater balance of it.
Some claim that the fourth plinth is being saved for the Queen, but our longest serving monarch will – many years from now – be surely deserving of a square and a column all of her own. Right now, we must agree on a fitting tribute to her husband. He was a funny, curious, flawed man. He should be honoured in a place that befits his naval service and the high regard in which he is held by the public.
Let’s put the Duke of Edinburgh with the people – in the middle of things; not with the politicians in Parliament Square, constantly surrounded by unwashed campaigners with megaphones, but in the most iconic square in our great capital city, where he will be cherished by visitors from around the world for centuries to come. It’s time for Plinth Philip.