When the PM put his dukes up

On the death of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh, Australia’s most respected political analyst recalls a memorable encounter with the controversial royal.

The very sad news from the Mother Country of the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh brought to mind an incident that occurred in Canberra on the 1963 royal tour when Prince Philip accompanied his wife, her Majesty the Queen, to a state dinner in Canberra.

Regular readers of The Bug will recall that I have written previously about much of what happened at the dinner held in parliament House and hosted by then Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies.

But there are certain aspects of the event that I, until now, refrained from making public.

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh now frees me to tell all, as the young people say.

Back in 1963 the royal tour dominated the news and every move the Queen made was carefully reported as were all of her important landmark speeches, although I cannot recall right now the deep and insightful messages they contained. But I am sure they were message for the ages.

At that time I was attached to Sir Robert’s office as a special adviser, being on secondment from my permanent post as Senior Under-Secretary for Tick Eradication in the Department of Agriculture and Native Affairs.

The royal tour went off without a hitch, or almost. But I was a witness to one incident that could have proved somewhat embarrassing if it had been exposed at the time.

Before the state reception at which Sir Robert was to deliver a speech as host, I suggested to the then Prime Minister that he recite a stanza or two of poetry to express his feelings for the Queen.

I thought no more of it until he told me he had chosen some verses from There Is a Lady Sweet and Kind by 17th Century British poet Thomas Ford. That information was delivered to me by Sir Robert just moments before Sir Robert took to the podium.

As he walked from the royal table to the stage, Sir Robert stopped briefly, bent down and whispered in my ear. “It’s all up here Rufus,” he said pointing at his head. “I’ve memorised every line.” As I was seated just near the head table I could clearly see the Queen’s face – as well as the Duke’s visage – as the PM recited the first verse.

There is a lady sweet and kind,
Was never face so pleased my mind;
I did but see her passing by
And yet I love her till I die.

I could see the Queen blush – and Prince Philip redden – when Sir Robert finished the verse, draw breath and continue on to the second stanza.

Her gesture, motion, and her smiles
Her wit, her voice, my heart beguiles
Beguiles my heart, I know not why
And yet I love her till I die.

As the PM drew breath again, I had a vague feeling of unease, or foreboding, more accurately.

This was aggravated when I saw Prince Philip grip a dinner knife from the setting in front of him and mutter in the PM’s direction: “You can’t.”

Just what His Royal Highness was going to say I do not know as he never finshed the sentence.

I knew then that Sir Robert may have overstepped the mark, as the young people say, and I feared things may get worse if he proceeded with the third and fourth verses of the poem.

I ran through them at lightning speed in my mind, muttering the words to myself at low volume, which caused some others at my table to stare in my direction.

Her free behaviour, winning looks
Will make a lawyer burn his books
I touch’d her not, alas! not I
And yet I love her till I die.

Had I her fast betwixt mine arms
Judge you that think such sports were harms
Were’t any harm? no, no, fie, fie
For I will love her till I die.

I simply could not allow those racy words to be uttered on such a royal occasion. It would be unthinkable that, despite the Prime Minister’s best and innocent intentions, some people present and the media there to cover the event could easily misconstrue his words.

Worse still, I knew that the Queen’s husband may misinterpret the intent of the PM’s utterances.

So before the Prime Minister could utter a word of the poem’s third verse, I pushed my dinner plate – heavy with an untouched roast of lamb and vegetables – off the table.

The shattering noise it made clearly distracted Sir Robert. Others around me – including the royal couple – jumped. I knew by his furrowed brow and the fiery look he shot me, that the Prime Minister was angry. But I was happy that my actions had caused him to completely lose his train of thought.

I then personally led the premature applause which drowned out the remarks of the PM who was forced to resume his seat at the head table where he was greeted by the Duke of Edinburgh with what the newsmen present reported the next day rather euphemistically as a vigorous handshake. (main picture)

I must say that for the remainder of the royal tour and until Her Majesty and her consort left our shores, the relationship between the Duke and the PM was somewhat cooler than when they had arrived.

Rufus Badinage MBE, now retired, is one of Australia’s leading experts on politics and public administration having worked as a senior bureaucrat for various state and federal governments.