Wednesday 29 August 2012

Honours in the UK: Debate with Peter Tatchell following the publication of the Commons Select Committee Honours Report

The House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee today published its report on the UK Honours System. Unfortunately, despite a couple of useful recommendations, the Committee's report was rather misleading -- and, due to lack of knowledge of the subject, these inaccuracies were perpetuated today by much of the British media.

I appeared on Sky News this morning to debate the subject with Peter Tatchell. The discussion may be viewed by clicking on the video link below:

Monday 27 August 2012

Orders, Titles and the Royal Prerogative: Canada vs Lord Black

Ray Hnatyshyn, then HE The Governor General of Canada
presents the insignia of an Officer of the Order of Canada
to Conrad Black. 1990
The indefatigable, tenacious and ever controversial media tycoon Lord Black of Crossharbour, better known to Canadians as Conrad Black, is again in the news. This time he is challenging attempts to strip him of his clearly much cherished appointment, in 1990, as an Officer of the Order of Canada (Canada's highest merit order). Officers of the Order are appointed in recognition of "a lifetime of achievement and merit of a high degree, especially in service to Canada or to humanity at large."  Recipients receive an attractive neck badge suspended from a red and white ribbon, and they may append the letters "O.C." after their name. They are also entitled to encircle their armorial bearings with the ribbon of the order and suspend the badge from the base of the armorial shield.

A member may be removed from the Order if the Advisory Council of the Order of Canada (an 11-strong body which is chaired by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) deems a member's actions to have brought the Order into disrepute. The possession of a criminal record falls within this category of actions. To date, four individuals have been expelled from the Order of Canada: Alan Eagleson (1998), David Ahenakew (2005), T. Sher Sing (2008) and Steve Fonyo (2010). Garth Drabinsky is another member whose suitability for continued membership is currently under review by the Advisory Council.  The call for Lord Black's expulsion relates to his US conviction and incarceration for mail fraud and obstruction of justice. In September 2011 the Advisory Council announced that it would review Lord Black's membership of the Order.

Lord Black's defence team have advanced ten arguments against his expulsion from the Order. Chief amongst these is their assertion that Lord Black was treated unfairly in the US judicial system and would not have received a criminal conviction had he been brought to trial in Canada.  The Advisory Board, which is now reviewing Lord Black's case, will make its recommendation to Canada's Governor General (the Canadian representative of HM The Queen, who is the fount of all honours in Canada) who alone has the authority to strip recipients of their honours.

Unusually, Lord Black has requested that his situation is so unique (and therefore unlikely to set a precedent) that he has petitioned the Federal Court to grant him permission to present oral evidence to the Advisory Council (the Council having denied his original request -- although his lawyers were able to make representations in writing). The Federal Court judge reserved his ruling last Friday and has not set a date for his decision. However, lawyers for the government have stated that the granting of honours, and the procedures that accompany them, lie within the realm of the Governor General's royal prerogative and, as such, fall beyond the reach of the courts and are consequently non-justiciable. It is a well-established constitutional principle that the Governor General cannot be fettered by the courts in the exercise of the royal prerogative.

This is not the first time that Lord Black has come up against the royal prerogative.  In 2001 the British Prime Minister recommended that HM The Queen of the United Kingdom should bestow a peerage upon the then Conrad Black. Conrad Black had previously received assurances from the Canadian government that as he was a dual UK/Canadian citizen, the conferral of this dignity of nobility would be permitted. However, although several similar honours had been conferred on other Canadians in the recent and not so recent past, perhaps due to the antagonism that existed between Conrad Black and the then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Chretien advised The Queen not to confer the peerage on the grounds that it would violate the (questionable) long-standing convention (based upon the non-binding Nickle Resolution of 1919) that no Canadian could receive a knighthood or title of nobility.  The Queen accepted the Canadian Prime Minister's advice.

Conrad Black launched a suit against the Canadian Prime Minister in the Federal Court, arguing that the Canadian Prime Minister had exceeded his authority to advise or make recommendations to the Sovereign as she was acting in her capacity as Queen of the United Kingdom and not as Queen of Canada. Whilst it is highly likely that Black was correct and the Canadian Prime Minister had exceeded his authority; nevertheless, the Federal Court ruled that the Prime Minister had exercised the Royal Prerogative and this was therefore non-justiciable as it was beyond the reach of the courts. As a result of this ruling, Black renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 and, as a UK citizen, he was finally able to take his seat in the House of Lords as The Rt. Hon. The Baron Black of Crossharbour.

HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
receives the insignia of an "Honorary"
Companion of the Order of Canada. 2000
The loss of Lord Black's Canadian citizenship raised (and raises) an important issue which, so far as I know, has not been considered or addressed by any official bodies -- namely that only Canadian citizens may be substantive members of the Order of Canada. As she was not deemed a Canadian citizen, HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, despite being a former Queen Consort of Canada and the mother of The Queen of Canada, who is herself Sovereign of the Order of Canada, was unable to become a substantive member of the Order of Canada, and was therefore controversially appointed an "honorary" companion of the Order on the occasion of her 100th birthday.

Now that Lord Black is no longer Canadian, is he a substantive or an honorary member of the Order of Canada? Certainly there is no evidence in support of the latter classification and we must assume he remains a substantive member. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that perhaps a precedent has been set which may now allow members of Canada's Royal Family to accept substantive membership of the Order?

As an aside, it is interesting to note that although the Canadian media almost always accord British peers and knights their titles (a search on the websites of Canadian media outlets will reveal that Sir John Major, Lady Thatcher, Lord Prescott, Lord Archer and numerous other UK citizens are addressed with their correct titles), this courtesy is seldom, if ever, accorded to Lord Black, who is invariably styled simply as "Conrad Black", despite holding only UK citizenship. One wonders whether this might suggest some bias.

(A further aside: Lord Black remains a member of the Canadian Privy Council -- it is a little known fact that members of the Canadian Privy Council are entitled to an official "Special Passport"; it would be an amusing loophole were Lord Black able to use this avenue to secure a Canadian passport. Alas for Lord Black, these are only granted to privy councillors who are engaged on business for the Canadian Government).

Saturday 18 August 2012

Save the Date: "Battle of Ideas" debate on "Monarchy in the UK"

Battle of Ideas 2012 20 & 21 October, London. Two days of high-level, thought-provoking, public debate organised by the Institute of Ideas with the Barbican.

For those who are interested, I shall be debating film director & investigative journalist Tesse Mayes, and Grahame Smith, Director of lobby group "Republic", on the "Monarchy in the UK" in the 2012 Battle of Ideas, which this year will be taking place at The Barbican.

To quote from the programme:

 "Monarchy in the UK
Sunday 21 October, 6.30pm until 7.30pm, Conservatory Battle for Social Justice
At first glance, the monarchy of 2012 seems to be in rude health. The Diamond Jubilee has been not so much an occasion for jingoistic national fervour as for quiet satisfaction that we live in a stable, free democracy that much of the world’s population can only envy. The Queen is viewed with almost unalloyed respect for the personal qualities she has brought to her role, and the wedding of William and Kate has restored the popularity of the House of Windsor to a pitch not seen since the early days of Diana. To many, the monarchy seems to provide a level of disinterested public service that is in sharp contrast to a political world tarnished with self-seeking and scandal.

"And yet, and yet. This is the twenty-first century. If we were designing the constitution for a liberal democracy from scratch, it would not have a place for a hereditary monarchy, would it? Alex Salmond may argue that the Queen could remain head of state in Scotland even if full independence were achieved, but that can be seen as an awkward relic of a long history of conflict and union between neighbouring states. Moreover, on top of traditional political objections, in 2012 there appears to exist a more cultural disdain for all things ‘royal’. The jubilee celebrations were characterised by some as a ‘national sedative’, and ‘republican’ ire often seemed to be aimed less at the monarchy itself than the supposedly docile masses who doff their caps to it.  Whatever, contemporary royal events often feel more like evidence of popularity for celebrity than monarchist zeal. Conversely, republicanism remains a marginal political movement in contemporary UK. Interestingly, the lack of a popular campaign for a democratic republic is has less to do with a commitment to the hereditary principle than cynicism about politics in general. For many, the words ‘President Blair’ alone are enough to see off the case for a republic.

"Is there still a logical case to be made for hereditary monarchy, beyond affection, nostalgia and inertia? Some would argue, for example, that its existence provides a code of allegiance which ensures ministers, the armed forces, and the judiciary do not seek to extend their powers beyond those allotted to them. Are there deeper principles that demand radical change? Or will we just stagger on with an institution that seems to have become adept at finding new and compelling raisons d’ĂȘtre, however much society changes?"


Tuesday 14 August 2012

OMG! An Annoying Acronym with Honourable Origins

Perhaps the most novel aspect of the trend for sending SMS "text" messages and "tweets" has been the growth of acronyms. LOL, BTW, FWIW, OTOH, IIRC are but a few of the acronyms that have become standard in many types of new media. Perhaps the most annoying acronym is "OMG" (Oh My God!), an expression that is not used in the context of exclaiming devotion to a deity but, rather, simply to express any of a myriad of emotions (often unrelated): amazement, disbelief, shock, outrage, pleasure, etc.  Personally, the term conjures up an unappealing image of two shrill, fast-talking young girls gossiping and repeatedly screeching "Oh My God!".

However, it may be that the acronym's origins are far more distinguished than we could have imagined. Indeed, as the letter below reveals, the acronym OMG (as a contraction of "Oh My God!") had been used as early as 1917 and appeared in an exchange between figures as notable as a future Prime Minister and a First Sea Lord -- it is even used in reference to the Honours System!

Lord Fisher
In 1917 Admiral of the Fleet The Right Honourable The Lord Fisher of Kilverstone GCB, OM, GCVO (better known as "Lord Fisher") wrote a letter to The Right Honourable Winston Churchill in which he jokingly referred to the creation of a new Order of Knighthood to be known as "O.M.G." (Oh! My! God!). He cheekily suggested that, in light of the Royal Navy's great success, this new honour should be showered upon the Admiralty.

Even if an earlier use of this acronym can be found -- I doubt it will have such a distinguished progenitor!

Saturday 4 August 2012

HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother: A Personal Tribute

 I was commissioned to write this tribute in March 2002, immediately following the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. 

 I post it today, to mark the anniversary of HM's birth. Ten years on from her death, this tribute to the Queen Mother might sound overly romantic and sentimental, but the emotions were very real at the time and, I feel, captured the mood of many of those who queued up to pay their respects.

HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: A Personal Tribute

The Queen Mother is dead.

The words sound strange and hollow. They suggest that all is not right with the world. One might just as well write that the Statue of Liberty has sunk beneath the waves or that the Holy See has moved to Winnipeg - that the Queen Mother is no longer with us simply sounds impossible.

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was a constant. World wars were fought and won, fanatical ideologies rose and collapsed, empires crumbled, politicians and dictators were granted fifteen minutes only to become faded names in yellowed newspapers. Fashions changed and traditions ended. But the Queen Mother remained.

Over the decades, as the world changed ever more rapidly and dramatically, becoming, in the process, both increasingly chaotic and unfamiliar, the Queen Mother stood as a steadfast symbol of stability and continuity. She grounded us. We looked upon her as a Methuselah. The sight of that slight figure with her captivating smile and genteel wave was enough to remind us that some things never change. From this we drew comfort and hope.

But Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was more than a constant. She was an institution. Born a Victorian and raised an Edwardian, the span of the Queen Mother‘s life is the span of our collective memory.
Rightly or wrongly we largely divide history into two chronological periods: twentieth century and pre twentieth century. The historic events that occurred prior to the Queen Mother‘s birth are as remote as the Spanish Armada or the expeditions of Columbus, those which occurred after the Queen Mother‘s birth are events of modern history – our history.

Born in 1900, the Queen Mother was the Twentieth Century. Her Majesty aged as the century aged and, by so doing, she came to be regarded as a physical embodiment of the modern era, serving as a rare bridgehead to the events of yesteryear. Through her we felt a tangible connection to our heritage and to our roots, those elements so critical to the foundation of any lasting national identity. Whilst the Queen Mother lived, the early years of the last century seemed less remote and our place in our national story could be better understood. These factors alone would render the Queen Mother a most memorable person.

However, Her Majesty was more than mere constant or symbol of modern history. One need not accomplish anything to attain that status. One need simply exist. No, the Queen Mother was far more. She was human. She was alert to humanity. She was conscious of duty. She was an inspiration.

A healthy and productive society requires role models and icons. Their function is manifold but they ultimately serve to motivate, inspire and guide both the society as well as its constituent parts. Our era, for whatever reason, suffers from a lack of true role models.

Real leadership and the notion of justifiably deserved respect and admiration have been all but forgotten in critical areas of modern life, replaced instead by artificially inflated figures of the hour or moment artfully created by powerful corporate hands and posed to resemble the genuine artefact We are encouraged and expected to idolise and collectively prostrate our selves before those who have become the physical personification of greed, selfishness and ego; in short, before those for whom "I" has become the all important mantra and for whom duty is understood only in terms of what others must do for them. Their faces are plastered on bill boards, on magazines, on television and in the cinema. These are the great and powerful we are told. They are to be revered.

All that glitters is not gold. Beside the genuine that which is inflated and artificial looks crude and cheap. The Queen Mother was the real McCoy. She towered over feeble imitations. In a life dominated by personal self sacrifice, dedication to duty and concern for others, even in the midst of great personal tragedy, Her Majesty epitomised much that was truly noble in the human spirit. To her we could look for examples of strength during adversity and calmness of spirit during times of upheaval.

Yes, Hitler did call her "the most dangerous woman in Europe", and that defiant spirit was no less evident at the age of 100, as she disobeyed doctors to clamber into a helicopter and fly to her daughter‘s funeral, than it was at 60. This is the mark of a true role model.

Today‘s youth will remember the Queen Mother as a delicate great-grandmother swathed in pink or blue chiffon. But let us never forget that the fist in the velvet glove was iron and so too was the will. The Queen Mother‘s resolute determination saw the Empire through two of its greatest crises: the Abdication Crisis and the Second World War.

Upon her husband‘s accession to the throne it was Queen Elizabeth who was the pillar of strength, tenderly but firmly encouraging and coaching King George VI through the terrible ordeals of his early kingship and the War which would soon be waged. During that war as a symbol of defiance against tyranny only Winston Churchill was their equal.

Whilst in almost all other areas society seems to cater to the lowest common denominator how refreshing and inspiring to know that here at least stood a shining example of those deeply cherished values and all important beliefs that have guided civilised man through the ages

The Queen Mother is dead.

The words have lost none of their strangeness. Yet the fact remains. We are all the poorer for it.

Friday 3 August 2012

The Royal Family & The Olympics -- Polish TV interview

I appeared on Poland's TVP 1 yesterday morning to discuss the historical connection between the Monarchy     and the Olympics. The segment is entirely in Polish.