‘For things to stay the same, everything must change.” So says the restless young aristocrat Tancredi in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, one of the great novels of the last century. It’s as pithy and profound an expression of the ethos that governed the life of His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh as you’re likely to read, as the Queen of England and many others across the world mourn his passing.
It was the peculiar genius of Philip Mountbatten, who died this morning at the age of 99, to grasp more firmly than most this central paradox of conservatism. Time is a jealous and insatiable god, and for every treasured object of our affections that we would carry with us into the future, it demands we sacrifice another to the past. The boy has to die for the man to be born. The grain of wheat must fall to the ground for seeds to sprout up from the soil. And long-lived institutions need to submit to the refining fires of the age if they are to attain that supreme conservative end and endure.
Prince Philip lived to see each of the great remaining monarchies of Europe meet either violent or ignominious ends during his lifetime. Most of them were made up of his own relatives. His parents met at the funeral of Queen Victoria, the matriarch of European royalty, in 1901, and he was born just three years after his great-aunt Ella was murdered along with the rest of the Romanov dynasty by the Bolsheviks at Ekaterinburg. The fragility of ordered life amid a century of revolutionary fervor was impressed upon his consciousness at a young age and never left him. When Philip was just a year old, his family was forced to flee their home on the Greek island of Corfu after his father had been sentenced to death. His sister memorably described the future royal consort crawling around the heaving, careening floor of an Italian train as his family journeyed headlong into an uncertain future: “a grubby child on the desolate train pulling out of the Brindisi night.”
The sense of contingency that these early experiences conferred upon him, and the acute awareness that all he treasured could sink at a moment’s notice into the sands of time, stayed with him throughout his 70 years as Queen Elizabeth’s husband, consort, and closest confidant. He made the modernization of the British monarchy his mission, determined not to let the Windsor dynasty founder on the rocks of progress, as had been the fate of so many others. “He believes he has a creative mission,” one of his early biographers wrote, “to present the monarchy as a dynamic, involved and responsive institution that will address itself to some of the problems of contemporary British society.”
Undoubtedly his most popular initiative is the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, something that has no real analogue in the United States. Founded in 1956 and hugely popular in over 144 countries, the “D-of-E” is a rigorous program that presents awards to young people who complete a prescribed series of self-improvement exercises. Volunteering for public service in one’s community, mastering a sport, developing a practical skill, and planning, training for, and completing an adventurous expedition through a hostile landscape are all prerequisites for receiving the award.
To understand the impetus that drove Prince Philip to establish the Duke of Edinburgh award, one really has to understand the kind of conservative he was. If readers will forgive a gross generalization, conservatism in the English-speaking world can be divided into two traditions that are often in tension with one another. There is what may broadly be called the Whig tradition, which holds to a libertarian model of freedom, the supremacy of the legislature, the beneficence of market economics, and the rights of the bourgeoisie and the middle class to determine the direction of society. There is also the Tory tradition, which defines freedom as virtue rather than as permission, allies itself with historic institutions over and against the market (which it often sees as corroding these institutions), likes a strong executive, and believes that an aristocratic class should govern society, caring for the lower out of a sense of noblesse oblige through paternalistic policies. It eschews materialism and commercial excess and, above all, prefers to speak of duties rather than rights.
In a larger, apolitical sense — a sense defined more by ethos than by policy — Prince Philip was one of the last of these old Tories. The values that animated his life’s work were inculcated at the Spartan all-boys boarding school he attended and adored during his childhood in Scotland. Gordonstoun School was founded by Kurt Hahn (1886–1974), a charismatic German-Jewish schoolmaster who was expelled from his homeland for his early and fierce criticism of Adolf Hitler. Hahn came up with a list, the Six Declines of Modern Youth, in which he summarized his beliefs about the rising generation and the reversal of which served as the north star for Gordonstoun and, later, for the Duke of Edinburgh Award. The Declines are as follows:
- Decline of Fitness due to modern methods of locomotion [moving about];
- Decline of Initiative and Enterprise due to the widespread disease of spectatoritis (i.e. “excessive indulgence in forms of amusement in which one is a passive spectator rather than an active participant”);
- Decline of Memory and Imagination due to the confused restlessness of modern life;
- Decline of Skill and Care due to the weakened tradition of craftsmanship;
- Decline of Self-discipline due to the ever-present availability of stimulants and tranquilisers;
- Decline of Compassion due to the unseemly haste with which modern life is conducted or, as William Temple [an Anglican priest who served as Archbishop of Canterbury] called it, “spiritual death.”
Hahn’s four solutions are as follows, and each has a direct parallel in the D-of-E scheme:
- Fitness Training (e.g., to compete with oneself in physical fitness; in so doing, train the discipline and determination of the mind through the body);
- Expeditions (e.g., via sea or land, to engage in long, challenging endurance tasks);
- Projects (e.g., involving crafts and manual skills);
- Rescue Service (e.g., surf lifesaving, fire fighting, first aid).
The Gordonstoun ethic practically poured out of Philip whenever he opened his mouth in public for the duration of his life. “The essence of freedom is discipline and self-control,” he told an audience in Ghana in 1958. When addressing the British Schools Exploring Society a year earlier, he warned the boys who had gathered to hear him that while the comforts of the modern world are a great boon to mankind, “it is much more important that the human spirit should not be stifled by easy living.”
These values led ineluctably to a career in the Royal Navy, during which the duke distinguished himself amid the carnage of the Second World War. During the invasion of Sicily, in July 1943, he saved his ship from a night bomber attack by launching a raft with smoke floats, distracting the bombers and allowing him and his men to escape unseen —an ingenious bit of quick thinking that likely spared their lives. He was also present at Tokyo Bay when the Japanese finally surrendered to allied forces and victory in the Pacific was assured.
But the most impressive duty that the duke ever discharged was his willing sacrifice of this life of the man of action, to which he was, by training and by disposition, so well suited, in order to play second fiddle to his wife when Her Majesty acceded to the throne. When news of King George VI’s death reached him, he saw the writing on the wall and wasn’t at all pleased. “He looked as if a tonne of bricks had fallen on him,” his equerry Mike Parker reported. The young, shy, and reserved bride of this very proud and dynamic man now wielded the scepter and wore the crown of William the Conqueror. Duty demanded a level of self-denial and deference to his other half that not many aristocratic men born in 1921 could have mustered.
The duke initially chafed at his new role, but eventually he shaped it to his interests. He was a great patron of sports, science, and the environment. He took up the cause of conservation long before it was fashionable, inveighing against the “greedy and senseless exploitation of nature,” and early in the 1980s he began to speak openly about a strange and newfangled phenomenon not many had heard of called “the greenhouse effect.”
Woven through the rich tapestry of a life well lived was a single golden, luminescent thread of devotion to his wife and his sovereign. By nature charismatic and dynamic, handsome and at ease in the spotlight, he became by duty what he promised to be for the queen on the day of her coronation, “your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship.” Speaking for himself and for those with whom he was eager to share the credit for all his accomplishments, he once said that “our only distinction was that we did what we were told to do, to the very best of our ability, and kept on doing it.”
Such was the conviction of the greatest generation, which is dwindling day by day, leaving us with only their example to follow. Even among that mighty company, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh stands out. Having put duty first during six years of battle, he proceeded to put duty first during 70 years of peace. As the age that formed him recedes further into history, we can be increasingly confident that we’ll never see his like again.