Just a year after they were reinstated by his predecessor, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced that the system of appointing knights and dames will be abolished in Australia, calling it “anachronistic and out of date”. It’s a familiar argument, often heard in the UK: that the titles have no place in a modern, democratic society.
To me, however, this seems a rather knee-jerk response – although the system of awarding knight and damehoods should be reformed, Britain should certainly keep the titles.
Few in the country appear to be arguing for the wholesale abolition of the honours system, after all. Most people support the general principle of rewarding those who have shown merit in a particular field, hence the huge number of nominations each year for OBEs and MBEs. And if you’re okay with letting people put letters after their name, why is it wrong to put words in front of them?
Here are five reasons why Britain should keep knights and dames.
1) They’re old-fashioned. So what?
Lots of traditions are archaic, but that isn’t necessarily a good reason to scrap them. If we got rid of things purely because they’d been around a long time we’d have removed the monarchy, the state opening of parliament and the Radio Times.
Almost every country has an honours system of one kind or another. The French, for example, have the Legion of Honour. The French system was put in place by Napoleon, and yet still is actively used.
Honours such as this are part of our common heritage, stretching back hundreds of years. Knight and damehoods have been held by people from Winston Churchill and Isaac Newton to Ernest Shackleton and Judi Dench. Why dump them now?
2) A few bad eggs shouldn’t put you off
Even the staunchest defender of the honours system would admit that they have, on occasion, been awarded to the undeserving. Certainly, too, there have been occasions where it has proven politically embarrassing – Fred Goodwin, the former RBS boss who presided over the stricken bank in 2008, springs to mind.
One of the chief arguments for getting rid of the Australian system was that a knighthood had been awarded to Prince Philip, a man not short on titles, but arguably short on the merit to justify them all. But the fact that an award has, at some point, been given to an unsuitable person does not justify its total abolishment. By that logic, the Nobel Peace Prize should also be abolished. Instead, we should be more careful about who we give them too.
Far too often, though, knighthoods have been handed out as a form of political patronage. The honours should be awarded on merit, not for something incidental to your career or contacts book. Should civil servants and business people, for example, really be awarded the gongs just for doing their jobs? Surely they should be reserved for those who really have gone above and beyond the call of duty, those who have genuinely enriched the nation – and not just financially.
3) Don’t like them? Don’t use them
Calling someone by their title is not compulsory and in my experience, it’s generally only those undeserving of the award that insist that you use it. Perhaps that could be a useful litmus test for its removal? If you think titles are meaningless, just ignore them.
4) What’s in a word?
Critics of the honours system argue against the specific wording of the honours, specifically the fact that so many of them include the words “British Empire” (OBE and MBE are for the Order of the British Empire or Member of the Order of the British Empire, respectively) – a political entity that largely ceased to exist after 1945. It could be argued that this wording is outdated, but knight and damehoods avoid this baggage anyway, tending instead to be “of the Order of the Garter” or “of the Order of the Thistle”.
5) Abolishing titles won’t make Britain better
When the US declared independence, it famously rejected the idea that their new country would have titles (although George Washington was often referred to unofficially as “his excellency”). But few would argue that as a result of not having knights or dames the US has become a more equal or fairer society than the UK. Getting rid of titles will not close the gap between rich and poor, nor will it make anyone more empathetic towards their fellow citizens. That has to start with all of us.
Good people with titles will continue to be good people, bad people with titles will continue to be bad people. This sums up the problem in a nutshell; if the honour system is to survive moving forward, we need more good knights and fewer bad ones.
… but the system should be reformed
There are several reforms that come instantly to mind. For instance making the process of awarding titles more open and transparent. Despite recent reforms, it’s still a somewhat murky process. Equally, we need to make it easier to revoke honours when evidence of wrongdoing or massive incompetence emerges.
I’d also argue that no one should get a knight or damehood before the age of 60. They should be a reward for a lifetime’s achievement, not something handed out to the flavour of the month, or for a political favour.
But I would argue against making it too democratic. The last thing the system needs is titles delivered on the basis of a popular vote. Even those who argue that awards should be more democratic normally stop short of asking for them to be voted for by the general public. Before he was officially knighted, an internet campaign to recognise Bruce Forsyth recieved 25,000 votes. Voting might be fine for the National TV Awards, but not for state honours.