The purpose of this blog is to provide some analysis and clarification of matters of current concern that require or deserve analysis and clarification. That Prime Minister Abbott’s decision to grant the Duke of Edinburgh an ‘Aussie” knighthood is absurd surely requires no such scrutiny, being clear even to the members of the government. But I think perhaps it does.
Here are three obvious reasons for the judgement:
1. Australiashould not have knighthoods, and the like, as part of its honours system.
2. Even if Australiadid have knighthoods, it should reserve them for Australians.
3. Even if Australiagave foreigners knighthoods, it should give them to deserving foreigners.
I would add a fourth:
4. Giving a knighthood to a member of the aristocracy undermines the whole system and goes against the rationale of the honours system.
This is not obvious, so we need some background.
In Britain, conveying of knighthoods and peerages – Marquis this, Earl that, etc., - harks back to the feudal system, imported from France by William the Conqueror nearly a millennium ago. The feudal system was a set of privileges with respect to the land, which was the (almost exclusive) means by which wealth was generated until the Industrial Revolution. To simplify: a large holding of prime land might be granted by the king to a favoured retainer, who would then have the right to a (substantial) portion of the income generated by the serfs, the ‘bonded labourers’ who lived on the land. A great lord, a duke perhaps, would himself have retainers who would be granted privilege with respect to part of the duke’s holding. These men were usually known as knights – Sir this and Sir that. In the eleventh century, Englandwas ruled almost exclusively by Normans, lords and their knights. Moving rapidly forward, the landed aristocracy in Englandcontinued to wield considerable power even up the middle of the last century, having seats in parliament solely as a consequence of who they were. Having a title serves to distinguish this special class of people, people who had privilege just because of who their parents were, not because of anything that they had actually done. William and his followers were essentially colonists, who invaded Britain and set up a system of landed tenure imported from France, a system whose time was up in the eighteenth century.
So why does anyone need an honours system - which (it is supposed) recognises achievement and service to the nation - that harks back to medieval times, to the feudal system, and to privilege which comes from birth? Why should it be an honour to have such a title? If the aristocracy were dedicated to the welfare of others, by protecting them and helping them in times of need, then perhaps in this modern day and age, those who perform service to the nation should be recognised by being elevated into those sublime ranks. But there is no evidence whatsoever that the aristocracy and the gentry were particularly good people, dedicated to welfare and service – quite the contrary - and so there is no evidence that the award of a knighthood or such like recognises that the recipient’s behaviour is such that he ought to belong to this group of splendid fellows. But now we can begin to see a reason why it might be good for those who already have titles, those who have inherited titles, to have an honours system which adds to their ranks. If those who are awarded honours are genuinely good and deserving, if they have done service, have talent, etc., and the highest honour is the award of a title, then this implies that if you have done great good then you deserve a title, so if you already have a title, then you must be equally deserving, great good must be somehow associated with you. This is all a matter of appearance and association, of course, nothing more, nothing real.
If this is (roughly) right, then the class of titled personages needs new blood, talented exemplary humble folk that have dedicated their life to service, in order to support the myth that titled folk fully deserve repect, to be called M’Lud, Sir Tony, etc., etc. Awarding a title to someone who already has one defeats the whole point of the system: the whole point of an honours system that has the award of a title as the highest honour is to support those who already have titles. To award a title to a 93 year old duke who already has more titles than he can remember, who is a loose cannon, an embarrasement and much more, is absurd. Or maybe not, maybe Abbott has worked this out, and is trying to undermine the whole deal, monarch and all. I doubt it.