The case against knighthoods

Those who know even a little bit about Canadian history will know that the country’s first prime minister was Sir John A. Macdonald. “Sir”, of course, wasn’t his first name: the man who might otherwise have simply been known as plain old John Macdonald was made a knight of the British crown upon taking office on July 1, 1867.

The tradition of knighting prime ministers, and other Canadian dignitaries, continued for half a century. Seven of the country’s first eight prime ministers would be bestowed with the “Sir” honorific, the exception being Alexander Mackenzie, who rejected the offer of a knighthood on three occasions in a show of his egalitarian ideals.

The knighthoods largely came to an end in 1919, when the House of Commons adopted the Nickle Resolution, limiting the awarding of knighthoods and similar titles in Canada. This occurred under the government of Sir Robert Borden, who accepted a knighthood of his own but never cared much for it, and thus left instructions that his tombstone simply identify him as “Robert Laird Borden”, minus the “Sir” part.

So, aside from a brief policy reversal under Richard Bennett’s 1930-35 government, that was that for nearly a century. Even John Diefenbaker, a staunch Anglophile, left well enough alone as far as knighthoods were concerned during his 1957-63 premiership.

Who would have guessed that talk of restoring knighthoods in egalitarian Canada would resurface in the second decade of the 21st century?

The issue was first raised by an obscure guest on an equally obscure CBC Radio program in 2014, but was given a more visible platform this past Thursday when Jamie Carroll, a former national director of the Liberal Party, published an op-ed in the National Post calling for the restoration of Canadian knighthoods.

Carroll writes:

Yet in 2009 New Zealand restored knighthoods and damehoods after a nine-year hiatus, allowing recipients of the country’s top honours under the New Zealand Order of Merit to convert these into titles. Last year, Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, moved to do the same, enduring a significant attack on his leadership in the process. He survived, and recipients of the senior rank of the Order of Australia are now also entitled to the prenominal Sir or Dame.

Abbott’s survival should be a cautionary tale, however. By awarding an Australian knighthood to Prince Philip without consulting his cabinet or caucus — a move described as a “captain’s call” — he offended many Australians’ egalitarian and, in some quarters, anti-monarchist sentiments.

A little more than a month later, he emerged from his party’s caucus room not so much a triumphant victor as a man rescued from the gallows at the last minute, as his fellow caucus members defeated a motion to dismiss him as party leader and prime minister by a 61-to-39 vote. The message was clear: you’re forgiven this time — but don’t confuse ‘forgiveness’ with ‘getting away with it’.

Across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand prime minister John Key had tread more carefully on the matter of knighthoods and royalty. Yet a 2014 study by Konrad Raff of the Norwegian School of Economics and Linus Siming of Italy’s Bocconi University found that knighthoods have had mixed economic effects in New Zealand, benefitting some but weakening the economy for others.

Knighthoods, of course, tend to benefit those who are already socially connected to those who decide who gets one of these illustrious prizes. Chief executives of large organizations enjoy particularly favourable odds of getting a knighthood in those countries that still hand them out. Thus, Raff and Siming decided to test how the withdrawal, and then restoration, of this perk affected CEO behaviour in New Zealand.

They found that taking away the knighthood perk in 2000 had both a negative effect and a positive effect. CEOs who had suddenly lost their shot at a knighthood became more like those CEOs who never had a shot at a knighthood in the first place: they became more likely to reduce staff, a negative outcome, but improved the profitability and productivity of New Zealand businesses, a positive outcome.

When the knighthoods were restored in 2009, New Zealand chief executives who stood favourable odds of a knighthood once again showed a change in behaviour, hiring more staff (a good thing for those who happen to get those jobs) but more willing to let productivity and profits drop (a bad thing for job-creation in the rest of the economy); while CEOs not in line for a knighthood continued more or less as before.

Another discussion paper by Andrew Mell, Simon Radford and Seth Alexander Thévoz of the economics department at Britain’s Oxford University discusses the perception that British honours are not necessarily given out on the basis of merit but, much like Senate appointments here in Canada, are a patronage tool to reward prolific party fundraisers and others with outstanding political IOUs.

Britain had been the home of a “cash for honours” scandal in 2006, when the revelation that “100% of all Labour party donors of over £1 million since 1997 had been offered either a knighthood or a peerage” forced a police investigation of the then-Labour administration. The investigation found insufficient evidence to prosecute, but the damage was done.

The Oxford group set out to mathematically test the presumption that 27 of 779 major party donors nominated for British peerages between 2004 and 2015 could simply have been politically active people who had the good luck of being chosen for an honour without anyone taking into consideration how much money they brought in.

Their findings, in classic British understatement:

As is frequently claimed by all parties accused of selling peerages, it is of course perfectly possible that it is pure coincidence that “big donors” are disproportionately likely to be nominated for peerages. However, the odds of it being pure coincidence are roughly the same as those of entering Britain’s National Lottery five consecutive times, and winning the jackpot on each occasion. Whilst coincidence is theoretically possible, this explanation does stretch the limits of credulity.

Restated later:

As stated, we have no proof that any of the parties indulge in the sale of peerages, but the odds are overwhelmingly likely that such donors would stand an astronomically disproportionate chance of eventually being nominated for a peerage.

If knighthoods are ever reintroduced in Canada, don’t count on them being handed out purely on the basis of merit. Naturally, our elected representatives will be all too happy to nominate a loveable public figure from time to time, whose being bestowed with a knighthood generates a bit of favourable publicity for the government.

But more often than not, you could count on these honours being handed out much like Senate appointments: as incentives and thank-yous for party fundraising, and as consolation prizes for those whose political careers have come to an untimely end. As the Oxford findings show, you can literally bet on it.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

5 Responses to The case against knighthoods

  1. John Dobbin says:

    Has any study been done on Order of Canada?

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    There doesn’t seem to be much out there. The Order of Canada is lower-profile and less overtly political than decisions to award knighthoods usually are, so I’d expect the effect to be weaker. (In Australia as in Canada, the Order of Australia is awarded based on a committee’s recommendations to the Governor-General without political participation, while knighthoods are effectively at the prime minister’s discretion.)

    The Order of Canada seems sufficient to cover all of our needs for recognizing citizens.

  3. John Dobbin says:

    And yet the majority of Canadians don’t know about. No chance of a hybrid where the Order comes with something aside from OC at the end of the name? We use the word Right Hononourable and Honourable for some in office. is that old school too?

  4. theviewfromseven says:

    “Hon.” is quite common. Federal cabinet ministers, no longer how briefly they held office and no longer how long ago, generally can use the title for life. A critical test for any potential reform will be how free it is from accusations of patronage. If the process is seen to be fair, equitable and merit-based, it will have better odds of acceptance. If it is seen as a new form of patronage or as being based on “the buddy system”, it will be mocked and rejected.

  5. Anyone who’s politically aware would agree with you that such things as knighthoods and Senate appointments are bound to become rewards for service to parties. However, I’ve always wondered why the mention of patronage is considered to be such a decisive argument against an appointed Senate. A moment’s reflection will produce the conclusion that parties have to find a way of rewarding people, especially influential people, who have taken the trouble to support the party. If Senate appointments aren’t available as a way of providing those rewards, what’s left?

    The answer, obviously, is appointment to corporate boards — something party influentials are bound to be able to secure. So, if you like democracy, but deal in political realities, as opposed to dreaming revolutionary dreams, the question that faces you is this: Would you rather have patronage take the form of appointments to a body that’s capable, between naps, of doing studies and giving useful policy advice; or to a corporate board, which will devote a serious effort to undermining the public good in the interest of corporate profits and growth?

    I leave it to you.

    Christopher Leo
    christopherleo.com

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