Equal noble titles? No thanks. Abolish them
By Peter Tatchell
The Guardian – London, UK – 6 April 2016
READ & COMMENT: http://gu.com/p/4t5cv/stw
“Equal honorifics for the partners of people with noble titles!” is an unlikely human rights battle cry. But David Furnish says it is discrimination to deny him a title after he married Sir Elton John because, he notes, a woman in his situation would be awarded the title of Lady.
“I am for 100 per cent equality across the board for everybody, in all walks of life,’ Furnish told the Daily Mail. ‘So the designation of a title is an example of something we need in order to get there…The reality is, if a woman is married to man with a title, she gets a title. I think everybody should have the same opportunities and the same privileges and the same honours.”
Equal privilege and snobbery? Now that’s a new one. With so many examples of serious, damaging discrimination, it is hard to get worked up over what may strike many people as a frippery and indulgence. Unsurprisingly, no lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) organisation is championing this cause.
Moreover, this discrimination in honours affects both same-sex couples and heterosexual ones. A man who is married to a titled woman — such as a dame or princess — receives no title. He remains plain “mister”, as in the case of Mr David Furnish.
In pure equality terms, Furnish is right. If rules exist, they should exist equally for everyone. There should be no discrimination, not even with regard to feudal-derived titles. But wouldn’t true equality be to abolish all such aristocratic honours, so there is no distinction between them and us?
This highlights the shortcomings and limits of the equality agenda. Equal rights means equality within the status quo. But what if what exists is flawed? Who wants to be equal in an unjust system? Equal rights for the male spouses of titled persons means equality within what many of us would see as an elitist, discredited honours system.
Over the last decade, I’ve had three separate phone calls asking if I would be “minded” to accept an OBE, knighthood or a peerage. The caller had a cut-glass accent. He declined to identify himself, saying it was just a “preliminary” inquiry. It could have been genuine or possibly a tabloid sting. I have no idea who the man was or in what capacity he phoned me. In all three cases, I said no.
To me, the whole honours system stinks of class privilege and social snobbery.
It is a relic of feudalism, with a taint of nepotism and corruption. Most of the top gongs go to business, military, diplomatic and civil service big-wigs, and to major party donors and political and royal cronies. Even the Queen’s pastry chef and gardener have received honours. It is the Establishment rewarding the Establishment. I find it obscene.
In addition, too many honours have imperial titles, such as Member of the British Empire. The Empire is rightly long gone. When it existed, hundreds of millions of people in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Pacific were colonised by Britain, ruled against their will, enslaved, exploited as cheap labour and had their lands stripped of natural resources. This sordid imperial history is not something worthy of commemoration with honours such as MBEs, OBEs and CBEs.
All existing honours should be abolished and replaced by an award system that has no feudal, royal or imperial connotations. The Order of UK? It should be reserved for acts of extreme courage, unpaid community service and for outstanding humanitarian, scientific, intellectual, artistic or sporting achievement. No one should receive an award for doing mere long service or holding high office.
I’d like to see awards given to ‘have a go’ heroes who rescue families from blazing houses and to volunteers who give their spare time to help secure the release of political prisoners, run helplines for people with HIV, establish adventure playgrounds, and provide meals to the housebound elderly and disabled.
So where does this leave David Furnish’s plea for equality in noble titles? If we modernise and democratise the awards system, it would mean that no spouse of an awarded person would receive a title off the back of their partner’s achievements. This strikes me as right. People should not get something for nothing – and certainly not just because they happen to be married to a person who receives an award.
But don’t despair David. We love you as plain Mr Furnish. You and Elton are appreciated for the vast charitable and human rights work you do. Neither of you need any honours to validate the public affection you rightly receive.