Behind every successful enterprise is the character of its founder, without which it can only fade into mediocrity. History is but the biography of great men, Carlyle assures us: we prefer now to see systems and processes, but he was right: that initial spark of genius puts life into words and forms it into success or failure. The departure of that founder may often be its end.
Rome required Augustus. There could have been no Napoleonic Empire without Napoleon. As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm.
A successful institution cannot be created just by one who knows that something must be done, but who knows what must be done, and how. It is not enough to determine objectives and pay hired men to pursue them: they do not have the vision nor motivation. Real objectives cannot be rendered in words but must be lived. It was the genius of the late Duke of Edinburgh that he could see the destination and the route, he could find those who shared his vision and he made them enthusiastic. He also made sure they got on with it. He was a consummate naval officer.
He did not see ideas in a one-dimensional nor black-and-white manner. His enthusiasm for science and engineering saw no contradiction in his love of nature and drive for conservation. The two do not conflict and have come to complement each other. Nature conservation is very much of our time, but before the Duke of Edinburgh took a hand it barely registered beyond the confines of the National Trust and faintly embarrassing feelings of nostalgia – but while the National Trust were content to buy to preserve and leave otherwise alone, the charities established by Prince Philip took on active research, education, engagement of local bodies, and creating a ‘conservation community’. That cannot be done without vision and a clear objective, and these cannot be achieved without the mind to direct them. The Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Wildfowl Trust (‘We formed it over dinner – duck I think it was.’); these are the product of a focussed mind.
The most popular legacy is the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, which was quickly established all over the Commonwealth, and it above all bears the stamp of the Prince’s character and drive. It breeds drive, independence and resilience: I cannot imagine any committee coming up with it. Those of us who have been through it up to Gold, carry its legacy with us, which is a piece of the character of the Scheme’s founder. It has gone beyond the Commonwealth too and had imitators. (The Duke of Bragança, the man who should be King of Portugal, formed his own scheme in his homeland, but follows the template and the drive laid down by the Duke of Edinburgh.)
The challenge for a founder is to keep the foundation going beyond his time. It is not easy. The state built by Cromwell could be built only by Oliver, and when he died, his son Richard was unable to hold it even for a year, as Hobbes recounts:
Thus was Richard Cromwell seated on the imperial throne of England, Ireland, and Scotland, successor to his father; lifted up to it by the officers of the army then in town, and congratulated by all the parts of the army throughout the three nations; scarce any garrison omitting their particular flattering addresses to him.
….The army was inconstant; he himself irresolute, and without any military glory. And though the two principal officers had a near relation to him; yet neither of them, but Lambert, was the great favourite of the army; and by courting Fleetwood to take upon him the Protectorship, and by tampering with the soldiers, he had gotten again to be a colonel. He and the rest of the officers had a council at Wallingford House, where Fleetwood dwelt, for the dispossessing of Richard; though they had not yet considered how the nations should he governed afterwards. For from the beginning of the rebellion, the method of ambition was constantly this, first to destroy, and then to consider what they should set up.
Systems are attractive, but systems are dead hands: it needs men and women of vision. Systems without new growth are restraints against the very creativity which was required for the foundation they bind. The founder must therefore not just create a system but create successors who have the life of the idea within them. Robert Baden-Powell achieved it, with a good deal of the cult of personality to follow him – each troop runs as if B-P were looking over their shoulder even today.
I think of the sudden enthusiasm for free schools, which had great success, when there was for each a directing mind. As long as that mind has remained to guide and to chide, they continue to thrive. Some were established by parents wanting a better school for their children, but they have seen their sons and daughters grow up, leave the school, and they themselves need no longer be involved: those schools can flourish only if the enthusiasm is renewed with each upcoming generation.
Now, to be fair, vision is not enough for continuance: Jordan Peterson observed that two characters are needed: it takes a liberal, creative mind to create a new endeavour, and a diligent, conservative mind to run it. The great men are those who can be both.
Some foundations of our age have fallen into dotage by following good but dead rules, the fire having gone out. Many have been captured by political activists lusting after their funds and the prestige of their name, but with no care for the original drive.
For those foundations created by the Duke of Edinburgh there is hope, because much of his drive was in creating in his successors the same vision. The Award Scheme has alumni ready to take on the world, knowing what the scheme is for. The conservation charities found a new dynamic, beyond mere preservation. He has gone, but his spirit imbues them all. Long may it last.
Going back to Carlyle, he explained his theme at greater length than an line:
“Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here. They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain; all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world: the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these“
The imperial system of Augustus went into decline the moment he breathed his last. Napoleon’s too as he boarded the Bellerophon to exile. Their achievements were “the practical realization and embodiment, of Thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men” and nothing without them. We may hope for better from the foundations left to us where the spirit of the founder still fills them.