If you work with the British for many years a time may come when one of them will point to someone and say “I think he has a title, do you know what it is? ” As Americans our instant reaction is “Well, he is an adult male, let’s try Mr.” But that is not what they mean. In the United States every adult has a title. We are Mr., Mrs., Ms. Miss, Dr. Professor, Reverend or some other prefix that indicates gender, position or academic accomplishment. Sometimes we extend the courtesy of a title to children calling them “Miss”, “Mister” or Master.” These titles of course exist in Britain as well but when they refer to someone “having a title” it means a title conferred by a monarch.
Titles can be very complicated partly due to history and partly due to modernization. The creation of “life peers” and the consequences for women’s titles is an example. The House of Lords used to be made up of men with inherited titles. Then barons as “life peers” (peers meaning lords) were created. The titles of life peers die with the owner. At first life peers were all men. Then women became life peers making female titles more confusing than they already were. A baroness may be the wife of a baron or she may have been made a baroness in her own right in order to join the House of Lords. Also both wives of barons and women appointed a baroness may be called “baroness” or “lady.”
Not only that, but the wives of men with many other titles are also “lady.” This is comparable to the situation of the wives of men who are doctors or just Mr – both are called “Mrs.” The titles of Margaret Thatcher illustrate this beautifully. She has two claims to being called (or styled) Lady Thatcher. First she was created Baroness Thatcher in her own right (and not because her husband was made a baron as one wiki article states) . Then her husband Denis was made a baronet (a hereditary knight) and as his wife, she also became Lady Thatcher.
British titles are so complicated in fact that most British people will have trouble with them. (For more information on ranks of titles click here.) This post is concerned with the role of titles in modern Britain but first, what does having a title actually mean?
The possession of a title indicates that a service was performed. In the case of people with the oldest hereditary titles it means the service was performed by their ancestor for a monarch. He followed the king to war or provided money or may have been appointed to government service.
Second, in recognition of that service the title holder is addressed in a particular way. Broadly, Mr is replaced by Sir or Lord. Ms/Mrs/Miss by dame (the female equivalent of knight) or Lady. The idea that Mr or Mrs simply do not apply can be challenging to foreigners. The wife of a British official in Washington – I’ll call her Lady “Smith”- was invited to lunch at the White House some years ago. Her invitation card said “Mrs” so when she arrived she told the protocol staff that she was “Lady Smith.” To her amusement she was introduced as a “Mrs Lady Smith.”
So much for the “what” now why are there still titles? Britain now has a professional army and civil service, the Queen is one of the wealthiest people in the world and there are taxes. Service and money are built into the system. What good are titles now? A small part of the reason is because a very small percentage of people still inherit them and Britain has not had a revolution that abolished them (like the United States.) The more important reason is that Britain is now run by elected officials and like the previously powerful monarchs, conferring titles is useful to them – with one important caveat. Today, the government with rare exceptions confers non hereditary titles only. That means dames (like the actresses Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Helen Mirren) knights (Sir Michael Caine and Sir Ben Kingsley) and life peers (Lord Coe, the athlete). Having broken their hold on power once, the British apparently have no wish to increase the ranks of “the hereditaries” as they are known.
Thus while the Queen still taps people with the sword, the decision regarding new knights, dames, lords and ladies has shifted from the Queen and royals to the government. Interestingly, although there is greater variety in who receives a title or a (non military) medal the basic elements of the criteria have not changed. Service is still there and money is still there but they take a different form. Titles are now given to people who have distinguished themselves in a myriad of professions serving society in accordance with their talents. The public is mostly aware of famous sports figures and actors who receive titles but there are many others including people involved in local government, diplomacy, health care, academia, law, business and charities. Having said that, appointing barons and baronesses can be a way of “packing” the House of Lords with ones political supporters – many new members are former members of the House of Commons.
As for money, philanthropists and party donors also become dames, knights or peers. In the case of the party donors there is not meant to be a direct connection but every so often suspicions arise that someone has received an honor in exchange for a party donation and that this connection has been cleverly disguised. This is not unlike many of the American political appointee ambassadors who raise lots of money for the president’s party or campaign. Rich party donors can easily present credentials involving generosity in other areas which enables the president to justify their appointment. So it is with party donors in the UK. The “honors list” in which new titles are published, state the reason next to the individual’s name such as “services to education” or “services to charity.” While this is no doubt the case most of the time, every so often a scandal labelled “cash for honours” alleges that people supposedly nominated for a title due to their work in a charity or another sector have in fact made very large contributions to one of the political parties (they both get to nominate recipients).
Government service is certainly also still as much a part of honours as it was in Tudor times. Former prime ministers are usually, eventually given a life peerage. And certain categories of public servants can look forward to a knighthood – in my book definitely a better system than offering a gold watch or a government bonus. It is a great system from the point of the tax payer. Titles are free so the public is not out of pocket while the individual feels appreciated. Indeed, so are their long suffering wives (now Ladies) who are rewarded with social status. Unfortunately, the ancient rules on honors mean that the long suffering husband of a new dame or baroness does not receive a title. It is men who pass along titles to spouses, not women. Thus Margaret Thatcher asked for a separate title for her husband who became Sir Denis Thatcher. No one can blame her for wanting him not to miss out on an honor accorded the wives of former prime ministers. In fact, she rewarded her son as well because as mentioned the title is hereditary and he now holds it.
Honoring an individual can also be symbolic. Herman Ouseley, a major figure in the campaign for racial equality, was made a knight then later a lord. This recognition honored his personal achievements but was also seen as supporting equal opportunity in Britain. Because few black Britons were honored, a political benefit was to recognize through honoring one of their own, the entire black community. One of the barriers to membership in the House of Lords used to be religion but no more. Baron Lionel Rothschild became the first (non Christian convert) Jewish member of the House of Lords in 1858 having forced a change to the oath so members of other faiths might take their seats. And they are there.
So in a British kind of way titles, which had been the exclusive right of people descended from the medieval ruling class and later the preserve of those with access to wealth and power, have become important in acknowledging the diversity of achievement in the UK. They also bridge the class gap. Hereditary peers may have an upper class accent but life peers from the world of politics have a mix of regional and class accents as inevitably do knights and dames from the worlds of sports and music.
Titles can be lost as well as gained. Hereditary titles are lost when no male heirs remain to take them up. Life peers and knights of course are meant to die with the possessor. However on extremely rare occasions titles have also been removed as happened recently when the disgraced former CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood and became “Mr” again. The loss of his title sparked much discussion not only because it potentially opens up the loss of other titles but because it is forcing people to ask new questions. The public has already made clear their distaste for bestowing honors on party donors. Now there is concern and perhaps some confusion about the criterion for honors – again. Fred Goodwin had received widespread recognition over the course of many years as a successful banker when he was made a knight. As a result when his title was removed by a committee whose independance was not entirely clear, many people felt uneasy about the justification. They argued that the title was conferred for achievements prior to taking up the honor. They compared it to a book prize taken away because the author’s subsequent book is terrible. They also noted the timing – not at the beginning of the economic crisis when he lost his job – but years later when the public seemed more frustrated and the government might have found it useful to deflect attention. It seemed vindictive. Those in favor of stripping the knighthood point out that the justification was for “services to banking.” Considering what happened with the RBS stripping him of his title seemed entirely logical and indeed inevitable.
Another take on the situation is from many people (often with no sympathy whatever for Fred Goodwin) who nonetheless believed that he did not deserve to be classed with others who were stripped of their titles in very different circumstances. In the past titles have been stripped from people who committed crimes. The most prominent was also a traitor to Britain – Sir Anthony Blunt who spied on Britain for the Soviet Union. They point out that while Fred Goodwin made disastrous mistakes he was not alone in doing so and he has never been accused of a crime. Whereas three life peers Lord Taylor, Lord Hanningfield and Lord Archer (the author Jeffrey Archer) were jailed for crimes yet they retain their titles. So in the end Fred Goodwin lost his title because the public was angrier at him or rather at what he represented, than it was at the jailed lords and what they represented. Because of this and the debate around his title, the loss of it was frontpage and headline news in the UK.
Perhaps this situation is a logical outcome of the modernization of titles by “loosening” the criteria to include people not in service to the state in some capacity since the reasons given for their appointment are very, very specific. As mentioned Fred Goodwin’s knighthood was “for services to banking.” Knighthoods to members of the diplomatic corps simply state which position they are taking up next. The specificity of the justification made it easy to target. Fred Goodwin is not the only person at the center of a recent title controversy. Others were told their names had been put forward then found that their perfectly lawful party donations were being interpreted by the press as paying for a title and asked to be taken off the list.
In the minds of many people Britain is synonymous with titles. What an irony that some of those eligible to receive a title have concluded that their reputation is safer without it.