Lords,Ladies & Gentlemen: The UK Honours System in Disarray:

Would you like to obtain a British aristocratic title – to have the designation  “Baron(ess)”, “Count(ess)” or “Duke / Duchess” in front of your name? If so, then the website “Regaltitles.com” can (so they declare) arrange it all for you – at a discounted price of $197 (usual cost: $397). As a “bonus” they will also provide you with a “personalized Coat-Of-Arms” ($99) especially designed for your new family identity. Once you’ve submitted the fee and joined the nobility, the results will be “astounding”: You’ll be allocated the “best table & receive the finest attention” in the top restaurants, airlines will place you in first class even if you haven’t asked (or paid) for it and when you check into a hotel you’ll receive complimentary wine, fruit and a room upgrade “simply because the management are eager to improve their class of clientele”. There are several other websites – among them, “elitetitles.co.uk “/ “englishmanor.co.uk” / “highlandtitles.com (for Scotland)” – which also purport to offer “instant  access to the privileged world”. Such assertions are, however, according to the British Embassy in Washington, misleading: It points out on its website that “The sale of British titles is prohibited by the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925”, warns its American readers that buying a “bogus lordship of the manor” would not give them the right to put “Lord” on their passport or have a coat-of arms and emphasizes that the recipients of  British honours are chosen by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister and the leaders of the main opposition parties.

There  are an estimated 700 “hereditary peers” in the UK . This includes 31 Dukes – among them the Duke of Edinburgh (the Queen’s husband), the Duke of Cambridge (Prince Willam) and the Duke of Westminster ( 4th on the list of “Richest People In the UK” 2011). Prince Charles is both the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Rothesey (Scotland). Since the Parliamentary reforms of 1999, the majority (about 630) of the members of the House of Lords have been “Life Peers” (they can’t pass their title onto their heirs) and only 92 are “hereditary”. They are not paid a salary but can claim a £300 allowance per day for attending proceedings in the House or one of its committees. The House of Lords Appointments Commission “will consider any British, Irish or Commonwealth citizen over the age of 21 for membership of the House”. They must be resident in the UK for tax purposes. It is possible to nominate oneself or arrange for someone else / an organization to do it for you.

There has, though, been increasing concern as to how some people become Lords and the way they behave once they get there. In 2006, the police  investigated allegations that wealthy supporters of both the Labour and Conservative parties had been offered life peerages in return for a financial contribution. No-one was eventually prosecuted – but in November 2011, a parliamentary committee insisted that a party political donation should not influence the decision to grant an honour. Meanwhile, several Lords who have been convicted of offences have nonetheless controversially retained their titles and membership of the House of Lords. Examples are: Lord (Jeffrey) Archer, the best –selling author (two years in jail for perjury and perverting the course of justice); Lord Taylor (12 months’ jail for expenses fraud); Lord Black ,the Canadian-born former “Daily Telegraph” owner (jailed in the US for fraud). Baroness Uddin was given an 18-month suspension from the House for cheating on her expenses but may still be able to return later this year, even if she hasn’t repaid the £125,000 she owes. As the “Sunday Times” has pointed out, some peers  (such as Lord Chitnis “who lives in France and did not attend for 20 years”) hardly ever appear in the House of Lords.

The current media debate about the honours system has focused mainly on the case of the former “Sir” Fred Goodwin (now a mere “Mr”). He was given a knighthood by the Tony Blair Government in 2004 but went on to preside over the near-collapse in 2008 of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), which then had to be rescued by the British tax-payer. Despite this failure, he left with a pension of £703,000 pa. After huge public outcry, he reluctantly agreed to reduce this to £342,500 pa.  On 2nd February  2012, the Queen (as recommended by the “Honours Forfeiture Committee”) stripped him of his knighthood. This also means that his wife reverted to being just  “Mrs” Goodwin. Women who are married to a “Sir” or a Lord automatically  assume  the title of “Lady” – but lose it again if their domestic circumstances change.   Nancy Shevell, the American heiress who wed Sir Paul McCartney on 9th October 2011 thus instantly became “Lady McCartney” – a description that from 2002 until 2008 had applied to Heather. It doesn’t work in reverse: A man whose wife is (or becomes) a Baroness or Countess  remains  plain “Mr”.

BBC News has noted that there is considerable precedent for annulling an honour: It happened to the Queen’s art adviser Anthony Blunt (knighthood removed in 1979 after he was revealed as a Soviet spy) .  Robert Mugabe (President of Zimbabwe), former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and Italy’s Benito Mussolini were all awarded honorary knighthoods – and then had them taken away again. Between 1951-1999, 277 people – such as the painters Francis Bacon & Lucien Freud, author Roald Dahl and (apparently) the singer David Bowie – turned down the offer of honours. The Beatles’ John Lennon sent back his MBE (Member Of The British Empire) as “a protest against violence and war”. Many other rock stars –  Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Tom Jones (all once depicted as “rebels against  the establishment”)  readily accepted their knighthoods.  As both Bob Geldof and Bono are Irish, they can’t call themselves “Sir” but can add the letters “KBE” (Knight Commander Of The Order Of the British Empire) after their names. The “Listosaur” website  has  queried whether – in view of his alleged tax-avoidance activities – Bono still deserves the award. Honorary KBE’s have also been given to former US Presidents George Bush Snr. & Ronald Reagan, ex-Secretary of State Colin Powell and film director Steven Spielberg .

Most other countries also, of course, operate their own honours system. Colombia’s “Orden de San Carlos” has seven different categories, the highest of which is “knight”. In 2004, Starbucks was awarded the Colombian “Order Of the Grand Cross Medal” for its role in “supporting the local economy.” In 2008, that country’s House of Representative’s President , German Varon Cotrino, queried whether the previous year’s total of 300 had diminished the value of the awards. In July 2006, President Ahmadinejad of Iran granted President  Hugo Chavez the “High Medal of the Islamic Republic of Iran” and received Venezuela’s “Libertador Medal” in return two months later. President Jose Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua assigned the “Orden Augusto Cesar Sandino” to President Eva Morales of Bolivia and Hugo Chavez in January 2007. Former French President Jacques Chirac conferred the “Grand Cross of the Legion d’Honneur” on Russia’s Vladimir Putin in 2006.  US actors Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Johnny Depp, Clint Eastwood , Britain’s Jude Law and  J.K. Rowling  ( the Harry Potter author) have all been made Knights of France’s Legion d’Honneur.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Politics, Society | Posted on February 16th, 2012 by Colin D Gordon

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