Monday, March 09, 2009

Knights these days

The National-led Government has announced it’s bringing back knighthoods for New Zealand’s top honours. These were abolished by the former Labour-led Government in 2000, revising the honour system introduced by their predecessors in the National-led Government that was defeated in the 1999 elections. 85 people honoured under the old system who would now be given a title will be able to choose if they want one or not.

“It is my pleasure to be able to reinstate these titles that will recognise the service of outstanding New Zealanders," Prime Minister John Key said in a press release. "This is about celebrating success."

Is it? The system Key’s changing was obviously about “celebrating success,” but some felt that without titles, the honours were at best, bland. The Government says that knighthoods “…more visibly recognise the contribution of the most outstanding New Zealanders”.

The knight-less honours system was an entirely New Zealand system, while knighthoods link us back to the motherland again because the Queen must approve the granting of knighthoods. "The Queen has given approval for the reinstatement of titles,” Key said. He apparently asked her about it when he visited her during a trip to Britain after his government’s election.

Key accepts, as many New Zealanders do, that New Zealand will be a republic one day, which makes the move to re-link the NZ honours system to the reigning monarch a bit odd. But the National Party has long been associated with the establishment and social status quo, and that includes titles; never mind that some of the people chosen over the years have been fairly questionable—National especially preferring National Party politicians and leaders of big business, for example.

Personally, I don’t think that anyone needs a title to be a hero, and granting titles doesn’t make heroes out of people who aren’t. To me, knighthoods seem quaint and old-fashioned, like the little old ladies who keep crocheted antimacassars on their chairs. Neither is particularly offensive, but they’re not necessary, either.

No one could argue with the whole system being old-fashioned. A man gets the title “Sir” and a woman “Dame”. The wife of a male knight has the honorary title of “Lady”, providing she uses his last name, as in Mary, Lady Smith. She’d never be called “Lady Mary Smith” because that would make her sound like a peer. If her husband dies or they’re divorced, she can continue to use the honorary title unless she changes her last name (if the male knight is married many times, it’s possible for there to be several women called “Lady” running around). The husband of a female night has no honorary title because no one has been able to come up with one. Apparently, that means that if a gay or lesbian person is knighted, their partner would have no title; the partner of a lesbian made a dame would probably not have an honorary title (since a male partner wouldn’t either—though “Lady” could be kind of fun), but the partner of a gay man made a sir would also not have a title because there is none (though some might also have fun with “Lady”).

Does any of this matter? Nope. But to me, neither do knighthoods.

Update March 11: I don’t often say this, but I agree with a New Zealand Herald writer. Brian Rudman wrote about the return of knighthoods and “what a joke it all is”. The Herald also carried some more light-hearted reactions to the move.

The first knights and dames to be appointed under the new Royal Warrant will be announced in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List on Monday, June 1, 2009.


Nik said...

Interestingly enough, my father-in-law is one of those affected, would become a "Sir" after this. I agree it's kind of an ephermal thing, but I also don't imagine it matters too hugely much in the big picture and does provide a bit of sparkle to those who've merited it. I do hope it's not a costly change as I would agree we as a nation should certainly have bigger priorities.

Arthur Schenck said...

I frankly don't much care either way whether there are knighthoods or not; it's just that it strikes me as odd to re-link the honours to the monarchy. If I was offered a title (fat chance!) I'd probably take it, because it is kind of nifty, though old-fashioned.

The Government claims that there will be no cost in the change, and whenever a politician of any party or persuasion says that, you know you'll be breaking out your wallet: There's always a cost. I have no idea how much it'll be, but at the very least there will be new documents to be issued to those among the 85 who take up the offer, plus an investiture ("dubbing") ceremony with the Governor General; none of those are at "no cost".

Maybe this is part of the Government's spend-up to deal with the recession. It does seem a bit of a fluffy thing to be dealing with while the economy is faltering, but Key asked the Queen's permission back in November and things have been getting steadily worse since then. So, in a way, this move pre-dates some of the worst of the economic crisis.

Add it all up, and I still don't really care, I guess.