Yesterday’s news that a certain banker called Mr Goodwin no longer had the right to be called “Sir”, pleased few and surprised no-one. Even amongst the most rabid thieving Tory bastards, Goodwin’s dishonourable conduct won no plaudits. For the rest of us, the days of bowing and scraping according to someone’s title are long gone. Money is seemingly all that counts these days. It buys deference and, in the absence of that acquisition, it buys everything else. Fred Goodwin has plenty money left. Many millions by all accounts, which seem fairly accurate since his salary has been in the public domain for some time. He can’t have spent it all, surely?
The Guardian reported yesterday that only 35 people have ever been stripped of their UK titles since 1995. That puts Goodwin in a special band of peculiarly dishonourable types – those without sufficient influence or care to be able to retain their titular status. Wikipedia beats the Guardian hands down with a comprehensive list of those who have suffered revocations of title. The list kicks off somewhat confusingly by stating that a certain Thomas of Woodstock lost his title by being murdered, whilst awaiting trial for treason. Presumably his title died with him or was passed to someone else; whether he could be said to have lost it at the moment he lost his life must be a moot point. Probably not one he cared to argue about. Between 1400 and 1685, 13 dukes lost their titles due to treason. These were either revoked by the monarch directly but with one Parliament got involved in the procedure. All but three were executed after losing their titles. One of these three had his title revoked, then restored and the following year he was executed, title intact. One was the chap who got on the wrong side of Parliament; he lived to tell the tale. The third was executed first but didn’t lose his title until two years later. Perhaps that was an administrative error? Overall the moral of the story of the middle ages was to fall out with parliament rather than the king.
In 1478 a Mr Neville had his title revoked by Parliament because he wasn’t considered to be rich enough to be a Duke. In 1485 a Mr Howard lost his title by getting killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field just before the king. His title is said to have been forfeited, which perhaps carried less shame. Whatever displeasure this particular Duke of Norfolk’s death caused King Richard, it must have been short lived because the king was killed soon after. Dukes of Norfolk appear beset with disfavour issues – the 2nd Duke also briefly lost his title for the same reason. Luckily for this second Mr Howard, he survived long enough to recover the title. Four people stopped being dukes because they got mixed up in Jacobite rebellions and two lost out by being on the wrong side in the First World War.
Seven Marquessates lost their titles between 1536 and 1695. Anne Boleyn was not the most famous to lose her head, she was also the only woman. Earls feature heavily in the list of serious political casualties too, with 54 losing their titles between 1051 and 1746. 24 of them lost their lives – mostly they were treated to formal execution but some were seized by mobs and one of them fell for that old ruse of getting killed in battle. Another two earls escaped execution: one by cross-dressing and another by getting his wife pregnant. One wonders why the others didn’t think of those solutions to their problems. Ten viscounts have been cut out of the aristocracy; with five either executed or – wait for it! – killed in battle. One of those unexecuted viscounts suffered his loss because his father had been in a Jacobite rising (where he was killed), which seems a little unfair but probably fairness never came into it in those days. 14 Barons have also suffered the same fate, with five of them executed. 12 Baronets have been disentitled but only one executed.
Eight men awarded the army’s highest honour, the Victoria Cross, had it taken back after they committed crimes, including desertion, theft, assault and bigamy.
Only two members of the Privy Council have been given the chop, though not literally. The first simply fell out of favour in 1687 and the other turned out to have actively supported the wrong side in the First World War. Losing the Order of the Bath puts you in remarkably bad company, along with Robert Mugabe, Benito Mussolini and Nicolae Ceauşescu and a handful of other nasties. Imagine those three propping up the bar somewhere. An empty bar with a nervous barman, one imagines. Two people have lost the Order of St Michael and of St George. Five people have lost the Royal Victorian Order, for naughty stuff like being a Bavarian Prince at the outbreak of the First World War and spying for the Soviet Union. Four men lost their Volunteer Officer Decorations, four lost their British Empire Medals and 123 have had the Order of the British Empire removed from them.
Fred Goodwin is a special little camp of only six men who have been Knights Batchelors but are no more. Whether they would hang out in a bar together must be doubted very much. That drinking party would include Roger Casement, a humanitarian campaigner and an Irish patriot, poet, revolutionary, and nationalist who was executed for treason, having apparently been on his way to Ireland’s Easter Rising. It is difficult to see Casement and Goodwin having much in the way of common conversation.
These days losing your honour does not carry a high risk of losing your life but it might involve killing other people. Recently, there’s been the tragic Canadian case of three Afghans sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering three teenage sisters because they defied the familial code on socialising, dressing and using the internet. Closer to home large numbers of our urban teenagers have died at the hands of knife wielding assassins for apparently innocuous misdemeanours such as being in the wrong neighbourhood, the wrong gang or just plain unlucky. This century began with the shocking tale of a young man murdered because he spray painted a short line through a tag scrawled on a wall. It seems that for those parts of society without Godwin’s riches, honour can be very valuable indeed. So valuable, that it’s preservation must be maintained at any price.
With riches beyond reckoning being the high altar of our culture and honour valued beyond measure amongst the poor, is it possible to lose your honour but keep your head? Goodwin still sits pretty, on a pile of cash, shares and pension contributions. He may have lost a certain bracket of social invitations but he’s probably able to garner some more. Does this mean that the trick is to be impossibly rich? Clearly not. These formal titles mean little in modern culture. Goodwin lost whatever honour he had some time ago. The loss of title is merely the result of gesture politics by the government.
The measure of a man or a woman is the turnout for their funeral. Witness the mourning at Václav Havel’s passing, when an entire nation stood still. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Formally marking your respect by attendance at a funeral is a price that you may sincerely wish to pay but the deceased cannot buy. Thus it ever was. Ghandi’s funeral was attended by many hundreds of thousands but even more turned up for Attenborough’s film’s funeral scene because they hadn’t had sufficient notice for the original event and wished to be there. That was probably the last truly epic film. Large crowd scenes are computer generated now. It isn’t only men of peace who attract large crowds at their funerals. Further back, in 1790, Flora MacDonald‘s cortege was a mile and a half long (and drank 300 gallons of whisky). These people all had that elusive quality: honour. They obtained it by their actions and had it confirmed with respect.
The challenge is to behave honourably always and yet hold your own honour in such low esteem that its injury at the hands of another, will not cause further harm. Fortunately for Goodwin, his loss of title does not carry a risk of execution, even by a mob. Unfortunately, he lacks the moral compass to pay back what he has robbed, by his recklessness, from the rest of us. Had he done that not only would he retain his title but he’d probably be rather popular by now.