It appears that one of the Blair Government’s many intended legacies to Britain may be massive destruction of public ideas and ideals of chivalry and dignity and their replacement by cultural proletarianization as crude, menacing and triumphalist as a Nuremberg Rally.
At present a Scotland Yard investigation into the sale of honors is underway and is reaching into high places. This, however, seems to me actually less important — it is not the first time in history it has happened — than the fact that the government has created an entire overarching background of cultural lowness and tawdriness, with the numen of tradition ridiculed and destroyed.
The latest essay into proletarianization, the bestowing of a knighthood on Irish rock singer Bono (Paul Hewson), came in an official e-mail which began: “Hi, Folks!” It was announced a week ahead of the other New Year honors, including any that might go to servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan. The award, Knight Commander of the British Empire, is one of the higher orders of Knighthood (OK, it is slightly below the Knight Commander of the Bath which Admiral Henry Harwood received for beating the pocket-battleship Admiral Graf Spee). The fact that Hewson is an Irish citizen makes the particular Order chosen even more bizarre.
Members of Parliament on all sides are calling it final proof of Blair manipulating the honors system for political advantage. Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay said: “I’m amazed at the way anti-establishment rock figures fall over each other to pick up gongs.” (I’m not so amazed, by the way. At the last Royal reception I attended Labour Party figures were climbing over one another like alligators in a pit for the chance of a Royal handshake, but that’s another story.)
The Prime Minister gushed: “Along with millions of others across the world I’m a huge fan.” Hewson has, for his part, called Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown “The Lennon and McCartney of global development,” which is evidently meant to be a compliment.
Hewson is a member of the group U2, one of whose best-known song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” is about British troops shooting people in Northern Ireland, though the message of the song and the politics surrounding it are ambiguous, and Hewson has denounced violence. Hewson’s concerts for Africa may or may not have done some good. He may, for all I know, be a perfectly nice man, but what has that to do with knightliness? Columnist Peter Hitchens wrote:
“Who is supposed to benefit from this parody of honour? Who is sucking up to whom?
It is hard to see why Mr Paul Hewson, a right-on citizen of a republic that rejected the British Crown and stormed out of the British Empire, should even want to belong to the Order of the British Empire, let alone be a Knight Commander of it.
Actually, the institution of Knighthood in Britain is now in such a state that it is hard to see why anyone would want to be a member of it — better, perhaps, if one is of knightly inclination (and not that there’s anything wrong with that), to buy one of the Orders offered for sale on the Internet — they at least have some sort of genuine chivalric impulse somewhere behind them.
The ideal of the knight — the man who is both valiant and chivalrous, both a brave champion of good and a gentle protector of the weak — has taken different forms in Britain and the U.S., but it has been important in the culture of both. It has been a potent cultural force, and for good. The typical John Wayne character, for example, was a “knightly” one. Knighthood was once a specifically religious sacrament, and preceded by prayer, vigil and fasting. Though some fell short of the ideal, a knight was at least meant to be something more than simply a good man, to be someone special, someone in a sense touched by the high and numinous.
The knighting of Mick Jagger, aging icon of the drug-culture with a life-style that needs little comment here, an event long predicted by Private Eye simply as a satirical comment on British cultural decadence, and of glam-rocker Elton John, indicated the Blair Government’s attitude to the whole idea of knightliness — a combination of joke and political tool. The old soldiers who returned their MBEs when the Wilson Labour Government handed them out to the Beatles in 1965 — ridiculed by the Beatles in songs like: “Hey, Bungalow Bill/ who did you kill?” — may have been foresighted.
To make it plain that knighthoods, or other honors, are regarded as really meaning nothing is to admit that the whole Marxist-deconstructionist mindset is correct and there is no objective value of worthiness to be recognized and honored, only baubles to be used for cynical political advantage, or to be deliberately abused in order to distress and demoralize class or political enemies. It is, in a queer way, part of the social totalitarianism that has never been far below the surface in Blair’s Britain.
With this treatment of what were once high honors goes an apparent compulsion to demean and proletarianize every great public occasion which should have associations of dignity and splendor.
The 2002 Jubilee celebrations at Buckingham Palace, celebrating 50 years of the Queen’s reign, consisted of a pop-concert with Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Paul McCartney and with simultaneous giant-screen coverage of England’s participation in a football match. Fifty years earlier, in contrast, C. S. Lewis had written to an enthusiastic American correspondent about the Coronation:
What impressed most who saw it was that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it. Hence, in the spectators a feeling of…awe, pity, pathos, mystery. The pressing of that huge heavy crown on that small young head became a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself; humanity called by God to be his regent and high priest of Earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if He said: “In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding.” …One has missed the whole point unless one feels that we have all somehow been crowned and that coronation is, if splendid, a tragic splendour …
What is happening now is not just a matter of individual aberration. It was announced that the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana would be commemorated with a rock concert. Performers would include Princess Diana’s “favorite band,” Duran Duran, as well as “hip hop star Pharrel Williams.” A press illustration of Duran Duran accompanying this story showed one of its members dressed, presumably for a joke or because of the attraction to the bright colors and decorations, in the blue-and-gold jacket of a Naval Chief Petty Officer with three good-conduct badges. Innocent enough, perhaps, yet there is something grating about this — that uniform is meant to indicate a lifetime of service to Queen and country, and to have a special dignity, tradition and gravitas about it. Here it is deliberately turned into mockery.
This isn’t just a matter of British ritualistic snobbery. Every country needs some kind of solemnity and dignity, some sense of occasion: the respect that patriotic Americans accord the U.S. flag, for example, is not something freakish or pathological but an expression of something normal and necessary in any functioning culture. And would a few eyebrows not be raised if a commemorative ceremony at the White House, say, or Arlington Cemetery, was entertained by a band wearing unearned military decorations for a joke?
It is highly doubtful that this cheapening of honors and public ceremony will buy the government popularity anyway: the huge success of books and films of The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and even Harry Potter, suggest that British people, in common with others, actually like old-fashioned ideas of chivalry and knightliness, rather than endless parodies and mockeries of them. Similarly, the great solemn crowds at the funeral of the Queen Mother suggest there are times when they believe dignity appropriate for public ceremonies.
At the Millennium celebrations the government had a unique opportunity do create some monument bespeaking achievement and nobility, the commemoration not only of the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, but all the great achievements of British history in that time. It spent the equivalent of nearly $2 billion of the useless, tawdry Millennium Dome.
Journalist Liz Lightfoot wrote of taking her family to the Dome on the day it opened to the public and of eventually arriving after a long wait in deafening steel band music at the “Body” exhibition (featuring a large distorted human body which people could walk through. It was necessary to see this figure to appreciate its full crudity and ugliness). They entered through some brown curly wires, which she told her children were meant to be intestines:
“What’s that bug, then?” asked John. “Have we got bugs in our tummies?” asked Jamie, looking horrified. It was only two days later, watching television, that I realised the curly things were supposed to be pubic hair and the bugs were lice.”
The lice were animatronic and waved legs and feelers. Animatronic pubic lice and knighthoods to rock singers sum up one aspect of the Blair Government’s cultural legacy pretty well.