Although many high honours have been conferred on Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, since his marriage, it is by this time quite certain that no titular eminence can add one jot or tittle to his stature in public life. He has taken his highly individual place in the Commonwealth by virtue of his distinctive personality, and not of any honorific labels that for purposes of ceremony it may be convenient or seemly to attach to him.
The Duke has by no means neglected the part that the constitution requires of him strictly as a consort – that is, as a dignified figure in support of, and scrupulously subordinate to, the Queen. He was perhaps at his best in this role during the Canadian tour, at the beginning of which Princess Elizabeth, her nerves racked by anxiety for her father whose sickbed she had just left, seemed temporarily overwhelmed and bewildered by the tempestuous welcome that was given them. In those early days the Duke stood boldly forward and bore the brunt of the terrific receptions in the eastern provinces. As soon as the Princess began to feel her feet he quietly suppressed himself, and from a modest position in the background contrived to direct all the limelight upon her.
Nevertheless this forceful young man was not born to play a subordinate part to anyone, even a Queen. In the admirable combination that he and his wife make together, he contributes the originality and driving power, however much her tact and judgement may sometimes be required to soften its formidable impact. It was early apparent that, in addition to his functions as consort, he must find outlets for his energy, in regions where he would act and speak in his own right.
The first such outlet had been provided by his chosen profession. The people knew him first as an ardent fighting sailor; and in his first important speech after his marriage, when he received the freedom of the City of London, he identified himself with the rank and file and the junior officers who had been his comrades: “Our only distinction is that we did what we had been told to do to the very best of our ability, and kept on doing it.” To “keep on doing it” was still his first conception of duty, and he clung almost pathetically, against the irresistible handicap of his exalted position, to the routine career of naval duty so long as it was in any way possible. The tenacity with which he persisted until he had at least had some brief experience of command in his frigate ‘Magpie’ in the Mediterranean Fleet is a quality that will yet make itself felt in public affairs, though at present it is best appreciated by the sedate Court functionaries who were all the time trying to divert His Royal Highness to more ceremonious functions ashore. It was only after his wife’s accession to the Throne, when he was forced to accept promotion to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, that he had at last to acknowledge that his career at sea was ended.
Yet while he was still attempting a full tour of naval duty the Duke was feeling for an individual position on land. The first large sphere of activity that he made his own was based upon his presidency of the National Playing Fields Association. That position had been deliberately chosen for him by one of his staff, who saw in it a speedy way of making the Duke personally known to people of all ranks up and down the country. But the Duke took to it with avidity and has never relaxed his interest in the movement, though other claims upon his time have supervened. It was only last October that he declared in Buckinghamshire: “I will go almost anywhere to see a new playing field opened.” He has shown a catholic faith in the virtues of athletics, at one time staunchly proclaiming that village cricket is the backbone of the game, at another insistently demanding stern concentration upon training for the Olympic Games, although characteristically adding that “it is much more important to come away from the Olympic Games with a good reputation and having made friends with everybody than to come back with a bagful of medals.”
Strong advocate as the Duke is of the strenuous life on the playing field and the track, he is still more determined to bring the same qualities to bear upon the problems of working life. He is acutely conscious of the nation’s post-war situation, challenged to rebuild from the beginnings its old position of leadership in the world after the material resources on which it was once founded have been dissipated in the defence of civilisation. He sees this problem in the environment of a scientific and intensely competitive age, and appreciates that if the position is to be reconquered, intelligence and industry must go hand in hand. “Hard work and imagination,” he told a technical college at Hatfield, are our only chance,” and “some way must be found to foster an adventurous spirit and flexible minds.” To the University of Wales he had said three years before, in 1949: “My generation, although reasonably well schooled, is probably the worst educated of this age. The war cut short any chance there was of acquiring a higher education.”
This passionate sense of the urgency of bringing the trained mind to bear, in spite of the difficulties of the time, upon the nation’s task of earning a living, is the underlying theme of the Duke’s most famous public speech, his presidential address to the British Association in 1951. The apparent erudition is not the remarkable quality of that discourse. No scientist, however learned, could have put together so comprehensive a survey of the progress of technology in many fields over a century entirely from the resources of his own direct knowledge. It was obvious that the raw material had been collected for the Duke from many different specialists. What he contributed himself was the power of unified perception and correlation, and the burning faith that the people who had been pioneers for so long both in discovery and in the application of discovery to the service of mankind could not fail under proper leadership to rise to the level of their ancestors’ achievements. Though in form a study of the past, the address was in substance a clarion call to the future. The appeal was to the ideal of teamwork which he had repeatedly urged in the simpler contexts provided by the Playing Fields Association. Let the theorist be always prompt to bring his new knowledge to the service of the practical man; let the practical man be awake to the need for flexible imagination; let the manual worker accept and be accepted by the men of speculative or directing intelligence.
Very soon after his marriage the Duke of Edinburgh was discussing his position in the State with a theorist who tried to justify to him the innumerable small ceremonial duties which royalty is called upon to discharge. He agreed that wherever he went on one of these formal errands he would be doing some good work for the humble community he visited; but he went on to object that he would only do half as much good if he submitted to a formal routine and went only where his advisers recommended. To get the real value of a royal visit, the Duke said, it was necessary that he should find out for himself where he could do good, and go there on his own initiative. He was then only beginning to grapple with the implied problem; but he appears to have solved it now.
Perhaps the best summing up of the attitude he has reached after several years of visits to laboratories and workshops is contained in his address to Swansea University College in May, 1952: “In the first place I found that there is a great wealth of scientific and technical knowledge which is there ready to be used. Part of this store has been used with conspicuous success in a great many firms, but by and large there is still a widespread disregard or apathy on the part of industry towards use of scientic knowledge.”
“Secondly, I relearned the lesson which I once learned very quickly in the Services, and that is, that the quality of the work and the enthusiasm of the workpeople depend almost entirely upon human relations. The man with the best tools will not do good work unless he is reasonably satisfied with his lot, and he will only do exceptionally good work if he is happy and feels that he is making a useful contribution as part of an efficient team.
“Thirdly, I am completely convinced that those who say that craftsmanship is dead are quite wrong. British craftsmanship is as high as ever. Given the proper tools – and it is the tools that have changed, not the men – British craftsmen are just as far ahead as ever. The forces for prosperity are the scientists, craftsmanship and labour, know-how ability, and the will to work.”
In those sentences can be read much of the elements of the Duke’s personal experience, the conclusions he has reached, and the cause he is at present most concerned to plead. It is probably only the first of many great causes that he will plead hereafter, for he has patriotic fervour, high seriousness and the gift of exhortation. He is only 32, and his voice is likely to be heard with increasing authority and over a wider range of public affairs for the rest of the 20th century.