Celebrating 300 years

In an exclusive royal interview, Michael Dewar talks to the Duke of Kent, particularly on the future of Freemasonry in his role as Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England

Good Morning Sir, it is a great privilege for us that you have agreed to be interviewed for the inaugural issue of MQ Magazine. With all the emphasis in recent years on communication and information, do you think there is any reason why the United Grand Lodge of England has not up to now had its own in-house magazine?

There are probably very good reasons why it has not been possible. After all, we have a very large membership of over 300,000 people and simply finding them and keeping a record of where they all are would have been quite a task. With modern techniques of building databases, this has become possible at relatively low cost. This is a wonderful opportunity and I am delighted that we are now going to have this vehicle for communicating with all our members and, indeed, with a great many other people. I understand the magazine is not exclusively for Freemasons, so I warmly welcome this initiative. I hope it will be a great success.

The idea is that MQ will be part of the mechanism for reintegrating Freemasonry into the community. Its timing is quite apposite, as its launch is just before Freemasonry in the Community Week this summer. It is part of that process, and I hope that you feel it is a sensible way to go.

I think it is, and it will be most interesting to see the way it develops. But it must not be seen as just a way of telling Freemasons things that we want them to know, because it obviously needs to be broader and less exclusive than that. I think there is a scope for a magazine that allows Masonic issues to be freely discussed in a way they have not been in the past, together with a great many other subjects. I hope it will be as broad as possible.

You've had an extremely interesting and varied life; what is it that has encouraged you to include Freemasonry in it?

Like so many people, I grew up in almost total ignorance of Freemasonry, except that I was conscious of a strong family link, because my father was initiated when he was in the navy, and later became Grand Master, but not for long, because he died very early. Also his father and two of his brothers were Masons. Many people who join Freemasonry know very little and need to be inducted into it gradually. That's what happened to me. I found that as I learned more and more about it I became more interested and enthusiastic.

I know Sir that you were a soldier, and that you were commissioned into the Royal Scots Greys.

There was little choice in the matter. Those were the days of national service. I would have been required to do some sort of military service, but the army was not originally mt first choice. I wanted to be an air force pilot, but my maths and scientific abilities were not up to that standard, so in the end I settled for the army. I never regretted it, always enjoyed it. It was suggested to me at quite an early stage that it might not be a bad idea to look at the army as a career, and not just as a thing to do for a couple of years. That is why I decided to go to Sandhurst and do the thing properly, and I thought it was a good choice. It's a marvellous life, especially for a young person. Perhaps in those days there was rather more variety available than now, and perhaps the fun element was a little more prominent thirty or forty years ago. I think it is still a career that is very attractive.

Of course, your father was in the Royal Navy.

He was in the navy originally and then left after about 10 years. When the war broke out, he was called back to an Admiralty job and then eventually was asked to take over Royal Air Force welfare, which he did for about two years.

You may remember, Sir, that we shared an office in Victory College at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst a long time ago. Did you enjoy teaching young cadets?

Yes I did. Of course, it was a huge challenge teaching these young people, young men they were then almost entirely. Very varied material appeared at Sandhurst wanting to be officers, and lots of them came from overseas. I found it enormously stimulating thinking of ways of generating their interest and enthusiasm and trying to pass on some of the things one had been taught oneself.

Because one taught so many cadets one doesn't always remember them, but they tend to remember you. I'm always bumping into people I taught at Sandhurst. Does this happen to you occasionally?

It certainly does. Frequently I meet people who say "Oh yes, I was in your platoon", and of course, as you say, 99 times out of 100, I haven't the faintest notion who they are and I have to believe them when they say they were in my platoon. Just occasionally one can luckily remember the person. But it is rather fun to think that there is some sort of network of people whom one has known. I often also find that some people say to me that we were in the same intake at Sandhurst, but that is altogether an earlier vintage and stretches the memory even further.

Is there any particular highlight in your army career that you would like to recall?

There are probably quite a lot of highlights, but I suppose, in a way, commanding my squadron of the Greys and taking them to Cyprus, where we served for six months with the United Nations force, was certainly a highlight that I remember very clearly. That was in 1970. We were in Nicosia and had a nice little camp at the then airport, which later closed down after the Turkish invasion. This was before that, and we had the good fortune to have responsibility for patrolling the whole of Cyprus, which was quite a task for one small unit equipped with reconnaissance vehicles called Ferrets. We drove all over Cyprus and visited every village, and our soldiers made themselves known to every part of the island, and we were made very welcome. They found it a rather wonderful experience to be able to do that.

To turn to Freemasonry, was it relevant in your military career?

I don't think I would honestly say that it featured. I was aware that there were a number of army lodges - sometimes regimental lodges - but I didn't encounter one when I was serving in the army, so I can't say that there was any direct connection. But I do think that army life and Masonic ideas fit together fairly well; the ideas of discipline and integrity are perfectly complimentary.

In due course you retired from the army and became the vice-chairman of the Overseas Trade Board, and in that role you represented British industry on missions abroad and provided encouragement at home. How did you see that role?

One of the principal tasks of the Overseas Trade Board was promoting our exports. I attempted to further that objective by visiting many countries around the world, talking to their authorities and to British companies working overseas. At the same time I visited firms in the UK to see how they were tackling export business, or even to encourage them to take up exporting if they were not already doing so. I am not in a position to say whether my own efforts were at all effective, but I hope they had some effect. I certainly found it intensely interesting to see the really big change that occurred in the 25 years or so that I did that sort of work. From a perhaps slight complacency - one could generalise - that one found in the early 1970s there was a very much more determined and professional approach that developed in subsequent years. During that time, the UK did succeed in substantially increasing its exports, overseas and inwards investments, so the trends did move quite favourably.

In the past several decades the balance between the manufacturing and the service sector has changed in favour of the latter. Do you think that matters?

Yes, it's true that the total share of our economy and therefore of our exports taken by manufactured goods has been quite steadily falling over a long period. There is always arguments as to how much this matters. I don't like to see it declining, but I think that economic pressures make this largely inevitable. There is a constant movement of manufacturers to be based where costs are lower, say in the Far East or Eastern Europe. You can't prevent this happening, but you can try and create the best possible climate for manufacturing in the UK. You can also ensure that you do the things that really demand skill and brain power, as opposed to simply cheap labour, and this is something that we can still manage to do. We may find the things that require intensive brainpower and really seriously high qualifications are something that we can retain here, but we have, as you said, been developing our services sector and we do have a very strong position, especially in financial services. London is one of the great financial centres of the world, so there are pluses and minuses and one has to look at it as a whole.

Do you think London will remain for the foreseeable future the premier financial centre in Europe?

At present it certainly is, but I don't think one should be complacent about this. More banks and more investment houses seem to want to come and be established here. Partly it's a sort of rolling stone effect: because so many of the big American companies and banks and brokerage houses are here, others feel they must be here too. I hope that will continue, but we have to keep working at it and not assume that it will always be the case; that would be very dangerous and unwise.

Whilst you were travelling, either as Vice-Chairman of the Overseas Trade Board, or when you were in the military, were you able to visit lodges abroad and meet other Freemasons, particularly members of the English lodges abroad?

Whenever I could, yes I did. Sometimes simply by getting together with a group of them at a social occasion, other times by visiting their Grand Lodges. The English constitution exists in many other countries, and we need to show our support and encouragement for them throughout the world. The only time that I've attended a lodge meeting, I think, was in Gibraltar some years ago, when I went to the bicentenary of the Royal Lodge of Friendship there.

Do your duties as Grand Master take you abroad?

They have not taken me abroad specifically except, I think, for that one occasion in Gibraltar. But I've been fortunate to have been able to call on successive Pro Grand Masters and indeed other senior Masons over the years to represent me, and they've been very good and very active in doing that all over the world. All my Pro Grand Masters have been ready to travel to Africa, to India or Australia, usually to install other Grand Masters or senior figures. This maintains the connection and it shows our interest and faith in those lodges.

Another of your many roles is President of the All England Tennis Club and, until recently, of the Football Association. Does sport still play an important part in national life?

All these sports seem to have a large following, but how many people are active in sport is entirely another matter - perhaps not as many as there should be. We all regret that more children at school are not able to take part in sport, although I know it is officially encouraged. You only have to look at television programmes to see how much coverage is given mainly to football - and other sports as well - which is excellent. I handed over the presidency of the Football Association about 18 months ago to the Duke of York. I was president for about 28 years, and I've been President at the All England Club at Wimbledon since 1969. So that's a good many years as well, and although I'm deeply interested in the club at Wimbledon and those championships, I have to admit that I have not been a close follower of tennis around the world. I don't go off to the Australian Open or the USA Open, or wherever, simply because of a lack of time.

You will be pleased to hear that one of the articles in this issue of MQ covers this year's Wimbledon hopes for Tim Henman and all he's doing for British tennis.

Yes, he's a splendid ambassador for British tennis, and I would love to see Tim Henman win a Grand Slam Championship, which he hasn't quite managed to do yet. We all hope he will. But what we desperately need is more young Henmans and female equivalents coming along, and we don't seem to have very many of those at the moment. But a lot of effort is going into financing young people and much of that comes from Wimbledon, which produces many millions every year, which goes back into tennis.

One can't conduct an interview without referring to your royal duties, which have taken up a large part of your life, and which have been superimposed on all your other duties.

In a way it was quite an adjustment from being a full-time professional soldier to leaving the army and then doing a whole lot of other different things, but now it's a matter of working out a programme and just doing what needs to be done. I'm extremely lucky that people have asked me to be connected with different charities and a whole host of different organisations. I'm Chancellor of two universities, and I'm connected with schools and scientific bodies like the Royal Institution and medical charities and others, so there is a great variety of different things. No two days are quite the same. Recently, for example, I spent the day in Guernsey where I visited a concert hall which I opened about 15 years ago. I then met a group of Guernsey business men at lunchtime and in the afternoon I went to the Guernsey Lifeboat, because I happen also to be the president of the Lifeboat Institution. So that shows you the sort of variety that one can fit into a day's visit.

Turning back to Freemasonry, how has your role as Grand Master fitted into your life?

It's probably true to say that Freemasonry has taken a more prominent part in my life as Grand Master visiting groups of Masons around the country - on the whole not individual lodges - because I decided a long time ago that it would be very difficult to choose particular lodges. What I like to do is to go to Provinces and meet groups of Masons there, because one gets a better idea what they are thinking about. I try to meet as many as possible in an afternoon or evening. Another aspect is being involved in policymaking and talking to senior Masons about the future of Freemasonry and about problems as they occur; all in all it has consumed quite a large part of my life. But, I have been extremely fortunate in that I have been able to leave most of the day-to-day operations of the whole business of Freemasonry to my Pro Grand Masters. I've been extremely fortunate to be served by some wonderful people who have given a huge amount of time and energy to it, and by successive Grand Secretaries (the senior official who works full-time at Freemasons' Hall).

You mentioned that you were involved in policymaking. What do you think is the future for Freemasonry in a changing world - does Freemasonry need to change?

There have already been considerable changes. Most notably we have worked hard over these last few decades to encourage the idea that Freemasonry is not something entirely closed and secret. There is no doubt that principally during the Second World War - and in the years following - that the habit of secrecy and of withholding information had become very ingrained. That did Freemasonry a lot of damage because it also allowed this idea to grow up that we were a secret society, and that did imply that we had guilty secrets that we wanted to keep to ourselves, which made us the object of great suspicion. This undoubtedly did us a great deal of harm because once that sort of idea takes root, it is extremely hard to get rid of it. One still, unfortunately, encounters articles in books and even television programmes which suggest that we've been up to all kinds of malpractice such as shady financial dealings, where one Mason protected the interests of another. Such practices are strictly prohibited. So one of my main preoccupations along with my senior helpers has been to promote a more open climate and habit; this will take a long time to develop, but I believe we have moved quite a long way. We do now, for example, encourage people who are Freemasons to be completely open about the fact that they belong to the craft. We don't intend to publish lists of people. I don't think that's in any way necessary, and certainly it is wrong to force people in public office to declare that they are or are not Masons. We object to that, because we regard that as an intrusion on personal privacy, but we do encourage people to be completely open about their membership. The only thing that we seriously regard as secret and the proceedings in our own lodges, as these are entirely private matters which are not the concern of anyone outside. It's a matter of privacy rather than secrecy.

Do you think that the change in attitude which you've talked about to try and encourage more Freemasons to be more open will be a difficult task to accomplish?

It is never easy to change attitudes in a large organisation. You have to remember that within our membership of more than 300,000 there are many who have grown up with the tradition of regarding anything Masonic as a subject that was never discussed outside, and to expect them to alter that approach is something one needs to work on with patience but I'm confident that over time we can produce a change in attitude. In particular we need to work on the relationship between Freemasonry in the Community Week which we are launching this year. It is designed to make much clearer to people that the ideas of Freemasonry, of good works, honesty, integrity and charitable activities, do benefit society and are generally a force for good in the world. This is something that we can encourage all our members to devote time to.

Are the charitable aspects of Freemasonry important?

Our charitable work is very extensive. The Masonic charities last year raised £20 million, but the effort is not devoted entirely towards Masons or Masonic objectives. The amount given to non-Masonic causes is also very large. The Grand Charity exists very largely to make donations and grants to causes which are nothing to do with Freemasonry. It gives money to a whole range of charities and charitable activities. It amounts to millions of pounds every year and I would like that to be better publicised. I hope that this new quarterly magazine may find space to do this.

Do you see Freemasonry in the Community Week as a watershed in Freemasonry's relationship with the community?

It could well become so, yes. This is purely an experimental week. We hope that it will have beneficial results. It is a very important step for us, and something that could never have happened even perhaps 10 years ago, and certainly longer back would have been really unthinkable. It is something I personally strongly encourage, and I have great belief that it will be to our advantage and to that of society generally.

So what part will you be playing in the week?

There's an important service taking place in St Paul's on 18 June, which is designated to be multi-denominational, and I'm hoping to come to that. I think it will make an excellent start to the week.

Thank you very much indeed, Sir, for this inaugural interview in MQ Magazine, which is going to be the flagship for Freemasonry in the United Grand Lodge of England. It is excellent that we have your support.

Published in UGLE

ugle logo          SGC logo