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Prince Philip and the power of personal choice

Summary:
The world marked the passing of The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh yesterday at the grand old age of 99. It truly was the world too, born a Prince of Greece and Denmark he died a Prince of sixteen realms over which quite literally the sun never sets. The Prince’s life was an extraordinary one. So much of which was buffeted by world events not of his choice and defined by others. In that respect his titles belie a sense of control that was not his, and is not ours in many cases. But it is his choices that shine out, a reminder that what matters is not what you are given or where you are from, but what you choose to do when you are asked or the time demands that you rise to the occasion.Born in Corfu as a minor royal of the Greek ruling family to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and

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The world marked the passing of The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh yesterday at the grand old age of 99. It truly was the world too, born a Prince of Greece and Denmark he died a Prince of sixteen realms over which quite literally the sun never sets. 

The Prince’s life was an extraordinary one. So much of which was buffeted by world events not of his choice and defined by others. In that respect his titles belie a sense of control that was not his, and is not ours in many cases. But it is his choices that shine out, a reminder that what matters is not what you are given or where you are from, but what you choose to do when you are asked or the time demands that you rise to the occasion.

Born in Corfu as a minor royal of the Greek ruling family to Prince Andrew of Greece and Denmark and Princess Alice of Battenberg. Philip would see in his lifetime his family’s exile, restoration, the rise of Nazism, his mother’s incarceration in a mental asylum, her joining a nunnery, her sheltering of Jewish refugees, his sister’s marriage to a Nazi official and her early death in an aircraft accident. His wider family would be forced into exile, suffer communist revolution and purges across the continent, fascism again in Spain, and even restoration (as King Felipe and his wife Queen Letizia’s letter to “Dear Aunt Lilibet” attests).

Philip’s formal education began in Germany but left when the German Jewish educator Kurt Hahn (who founded the Schule Schloss Salem at which Philip studied) was forced out of the country and came to the UK — setting up Gordonstoun School with the belief that freedom and discipline were "not enemies."

The education he received was one of practical bulwark against the ‘societal ills’ that Hahn identified as the lack of physical fitness and the declines of: initiative and enterprise, imagination, craftsmanship, self-discipline, and compassion. The Prince’s move to Scotland was by free choice, a brave choice to follow the ideas of the man and an active one to reject the rise of identitarian and national socialist politics driving Germany at the time. 

Britain gained an exceptional man. He came top of the class in officer training for the Navy saw service throughout the world. Many of the tributes yesterday by Commonwealth leaders began by remarking his first arrival in their countries aboard numerous of His Majesty’s Ships. He saw active service in the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific — and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered. 

His service to our Crown and Country, and to a world free from fascism, was by free choice. It reminds me of the exchange between Milton Friedman and General William Westmoreland over whether the US draft should be replaced by volunteerism:

“In the course of his [General Westmoreland’s] testimony, he made the statement that he did not want to command an army of mercenaries. I [Milton Friedman] stopped him and said, ‘General, would you rather command an army of slaves?’ He drew himself up and said, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.’ I replied, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries.’ But I went on to say, ‘If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.’ That was the last that we heard from the general about mercenaries.”

The Battenbergs were one of Europe’s great mercenary Houses. Prince Philip chose Britain, his uncle the Earl Mountbatten had done so too — service for which Philip’s uncle was rewarded with both the Supreme Allied Command of SouthEast Asia during the war, the last Viceroyship of India after it, and death by the IRA. 

Philip’s choice of Britain multiplied after the war. His correspondence with the young Princess Elizabeth that had begun before the war, survived the many months at sea and at port, became marriage and a lifetime of dedicated service to both the woman and the Crown. His role was to be ever in the spotlight but to ensure he never stole the show. 

A man’s man and a lady’s man the Duke has had his fair share of enjoying the finer things in life. The front page of the Times today carries a picture of the Duke playing polo on a bike at Windsor Great Park catching a woman in a short skirt and a camera in hand off guard gleefully in 1964. The obituary carries a wonderful quote from his cousin Queen Alexandra of Yugoslavia of his bachelor days: “Blondes, brunettes and red-headed charmers, Philip gallantly, and I think impartially, squired them all.”

Yet for seventy decades the Palace and the Queen have been his paramount choice. Decades were spent standing in her service in driving rain, in snow and sand and at sea, honouring the war dead, patronising charities and famously offering a range of witty (and sometimes condescending) remarks. Little by choice but all by choice at the same time. Family first, family at the heart of every decision. Offered the choice to meet President Trump or to attend the Christening of a godchild, it is telling he chose the Christening. 

Freedom of religion is a practical as well as academic matter in the Duke’s life. Two of his aunts are martyrs of the Orthodox Church, murdered by Bolsheviks. His mother as a nun of that Church is venerated at Yad Vashem in Israel as “righteous among the nations.” He himself converted to Anglicanism in order to reflect his loyalty to his wife as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

But while choice over belief in the otherworldly is important, the everyday here and now takes precedence in his deeds. It was his choice to use his office and his role to launch the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme that best reflects that he is aware that his title confers the ability to offer advantage to others as much as it did give reward and responsibilities to himself. 

144 countries now operate the scheme started in 1956, six million people in the UK and eight million across the world have a personal link to the Duke via awards — whose focuses on skill acquisition, independent expedition, physicality and volunteerism have clear foundations in the educational thought of Hahn and the wartime experience of the Duke.

The message here is an important one. Pass on and expand opportunities, help others to expand their own horizons, and use what advantage you have to give advantage to others. Doing so is in your own interests, the free exchange of opportunities engenders obligations that provide surety to your own position. Loyalty begotten by kinship. It is a remarkable application of the principle of the monarchical appeal that I think mirrors Smith’s explanation of what we need to deliver prosperity. 

“Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.”

Constitutional monarchies have a habit of achieving that stability and limiting the excesses of political overreach that enables the tolerable administration and thus the promotion of prosperity. Mauro Guillen of the University of Pennsylvania found that over the 110 years between 1900 and 2010, monarchies had a better record than republics in protecting property rights of businesses and individuals.  

While most of the Royal Family’s politics are kept unknown we do know something of the late Duke’s. In 1984 he told Thames Television what he thought of communitarian ideologies:

“the individual shouldn’t be lost in the bureaucracy of state”

and that

“the consequences of dictatorships… that individuals are there for the sake of the state, and I think that seems to be wrong to me, the state should be there for the sake of the individual.”

He spoke of Sacred Cows, things that you cannot speak about, and he named explicitly the NHS as something that is elevated beyond its status and to the detriment of those that have no choice other than its provision. 

In 1977 the Duke warned in a speech to Radio Clyde that unless a sea change would occur in Britain the declinism that dominated at the time would mean a:

“gradual reduction in the freedom of choice and individual responsibility, particularly in such things as housing, the education of children, healthcare, the ability to acquire or inherit personal property, to hand on commercial enterprises, and the ability to provide for old age through personal savings, and, perhaps most important of all, the freedom of the individual to exploit his skills or talents as suits him best.”

He went on to echo the words of Adam Smith in saying that we should

“trust individuals to pursue their own interests to the benefit of their fellow citizens and the state as a whole.”

The country got a reprieve from statism under Thatcher but it feels like a timely warning today. For decades we’ve lost growing amounts of our incomes to rents thanks to a democratised housing market that favours incumbents over new entrants and which rewards landlordism. My generation is locked out of home ownership, we cannot save for old age, and we’re storing up inequalities of inheritance that’ll be tied to race issues within a decade. This year we saw the Conservatives choose to bow to public pressure to say that taxpayers and not parents should pay for the lunch of kids even when not in school. The NHS, quite literally in the middle of rationing care that left a great many of our countrymen dead, was clapped ahead of the actual nurses and doctors doing all they could to save as many as possible being let down by a system that couldn’t cope. We have higher taxes apparently incoming from a Tory government, and we’ve had Conservatives define what skills and jobs are deemed essential or otherwise.

Perhaps then you can start to understand the Prince through both his actions and his words as a materialist and instinctive conservative. A man for whom institutions are designed to provide stability and loyalty in a virtuous circle but require reform if they’re enforcing the opposite. For whom practical things are done for purpose and (as he wrote in a letter to the IEA) which should be judged against facts and not fashions. And for whom above all else, and from whom is demanded most, is kith and kin. 

It marries well the 1792 cartoon by Thomas Rowlandson (the Duke was a renowned lover of political cartoons, owning several works by the Express cartoonist Carl Giles and opened the capital’s Cartoon Museum) that satirised French and English liberties and emphasised the importance of judging outcomes over intentions.

The individual took a back seat in the final year of his life as we collectively worked to defeat a viral threat, but politicians that are keen to take the credit for the victories while ignoring the losses should be reminded that it was individuals and private businesses that delivered both the literal goods to millions of us and the development of vaccines — and not the state monopolies or rationing services. 

It was our politicians’ jobs to ensure that we had sufficient credit and cash available to us that would enable us freely to avoid interactions with others while those interactions led to deaths. To enable the economy to actively not adapt to a non-normal situation and survive until now when we can have it adapt to changed circumstances. Too much has been lost of the individual choice, right and responsibility, and I worry that a balance was been tipped in the wrong direction with the absurdity of bans on the ability to leave the country without giving due reason. It is upon us all to ensure that as the viral threat recedes, so too wholesale the restrictions on our lives — perhaps even to make the case that a deficit of freedom requires an expansion of our rights beyond what we had before.

Prince Philip’s was an extraordinary life, made up of extraordinary choices but it is all the more remarkable for the fact that he used those choices and circumstances to expand the choices and opportunities of those with fewer and less than himself. With your support we try and do just that too, whether it’s our books and research (the latest of which is very applicable!), our podcasts and webinars, or Freedom Week (applications open on April 12th!). We thank you for that, it changes the next generation’s lives and that means the world. 

My condolences to the Queen, to the whole of the Royal Family, and to the realms’ peoples. We have lost a man who really did get it.

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