You might very well think that no one cares about knighthoods anymore. Not so: I, for one, care very deeply about them.
Before the meddlesome and unpleasant Labour government abolished them, knighthoods had been around for many centuries. Until the mid 1990s New Zealand shared the same orders of knighthood as Great Britain – the traditional orders of the Bath, the Garter, St. Michael and St. George etc. These were highly respected orders with colourful and lengthy histories. However, the government of the day decided that the British orders were not really suited to New Zealand.
Most countries would consider their awards system as being representative of their national identity. By maintaining the British orders it was said to infringe on our identity as a ‘grown-up’ nation. This is perhaps fair enough. It did seem odd to most New Zealanders that we were investing New Zealanders in British orders. Hence the National government of the day decided to replace the old British orders with the New Zealand Order of Merit. This way, New Zealanders could still receive knighthoods, but they were New Zealand knighthoods, rather than British ones.
Unfortunately this state of affairs didn’t last long. The government changed, and the cultural-reformist government of Helen Clark was elected. In the post election euphoria of 2000, and with little prior warning, Ms Clark released decades of repressed socialist angst and abolished knighthoods entirely.
I can remember that day well. I was a youthful sixth former stopped at a petrol station filling my antiquated Ford Laser with petrol, when to my horror I spied the headline “Knighthoods to be abolished”. I was devastated. Whilst my acquaintances pondered petty, childish things such as what parties to go to, which “chicks” they wanted to “hook up” with, and where the most potent marijuana was to be purchased, I realised that I would have to revise my life plan; what was the point of becoming Governor General if I couldn’t be a ‘Sir’?
However once I had recovered from my anglophilic anguish I realised that this policy was bad, not just for demented schoolboys with vice-regal fantasies, but also for New Zealand generally.
Perhaps the process of awarding knighthoods had become diluted to the point where political parties gave them out to any old businessman or party hack, but the principle of titular honours is sound.
For a start, knighthoods are based on merit. Unlike the hereditary peerages of old, knighthoods are not bestowed according to birth or social status. They are given to those who deserve them – sportspeople, community leaders, business leaders, clergy, and pretty much any public figure who has served the country or their particular field. They are a way of acknowledging the work the recipient has done, which doesn’t rely on monetary remuneration.
To refer to someone as Sir or Dame is no less equitable than to refer to someone as Dr, except that the process for earning a doctorate is more defined and rigid. In most cases titular recognition accords an additional degree of respect and formality to those who have received it.
The only real problem with knighthoods was that they came from Great Britain, our colonising power. Some people thought that by awarding British sourced honours we were not becoming independent – that we were “clinging to the apron strings”.
Very few New Zealanders want to actually be British. We are an entirely unique country. Our national identity has been forged over many decades by our beliefs, our history, and our demography. However a large part of that history is British, and so is a large part of that demography. To argue that there should be no British influence in that identity is to deny our heritage. This does not mean that we should do everything the British do. What we need to do is find a comfortable balance.
The Knights and Dames of the New Zealand Order of Merit took a British tradition, and gave it a distinctly New Zealand flavour. That is not “clutching the apron strings” at all. Far from it, that is about the acknowledgment of both where we came from, and where we are heading.
Increasingly we are adopting Maori language and practises into the ceremonial aspects of government. I think this is to be encouraged. It is what distinguishes us from the cultural vacuum that exists in some other western countries. What I would suggest however, is that certain aspects of our British heritage that do not conflict with our modern ideals can similarly be adopted into our cultural framework; one that has room for all of New Zealand’s acquired traditions.
New Zealanders have been subtly brainwashed into thinking that the cleansing of any relics of our Britishness must precede any future as a nation. This is not only wrong, but will lead to cultural confusion and self-denial.
We do not need to be British, but by taking the best aspects of our colonial past, and learning important lessons from the rest, we can become a nation that represents who we actually are, not who the cultural revisionists in the Labour government want us to become.
The Knights and Dames of the New Zealand Order of Merit should be reinstated immediately.