Her Majesty Dubs Thee . . . Does Ted Kennedy Deserve a Knighthood?

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Her Majesty Dubs Thee . . . Does Ted Kennedy Deserve a Knighthood?

Mar 7, 2009 3 min read

Former Senior Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Helle’s work focused on the U.S. government’s institutions and programs for strategic outreach to the public of foreign countries.

"It's like giving Osama bin Laden a knighthood for services to Afghanistan." That was the reaction of one shocked British citizen to the news that Prime Minister Gordon Brown, with the blessing of the Queen, had conferred an honorary knighthood on Sen. Edward Kennedy for "services to Northern Ireland," along with other unspecified contributions to U.S.-U.K. relations.

The reaction was typical of the outrage felt by many other Britons at the award of the honor to a man widely seen in Britain as a lifelong supporter of the Republican (i.e. anti-British) cause in Northern Ireland, if not as actually sympathetic to the Irish Republican Army. The IRA killed more than 700 British soldiers and probably twice as many Irish civilians in cold blood during the 30-odd years of "the troubles" that began in Northern Ireland in 1969 - when the British army first went in to protect the Catholic community.

"Sir Edward Kennedy," as Mr. Brown called him in a speech to the joint Houses of Congress announcing the award March 4, is famous for having campaigned to end British rule in Northern Ireland, which he once compared to the U.S. invasion of Vietnam, and unite the United Kingdom's province with the Irish Republic.

At one point, Mr. Kennedy approached British soldiers in Northern Ireland and told them to go back to their own country. "We are in our own country," one of them replied. "Why don't you go back to yours?"

Mr. Brown's shameless use of the knighthood to pander to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, including President Barack Obama, raises serious questions about his judgment in his battle to become a world leader in the fight against global recession - in the face of growing public hostility and dismal opinion polls at home. In one recent survey, 63 percent said he should retire immediately as Labor Party leader, and thus as prime minister, without even waiting for the next election, due by June 2010 at the latest.

But the award also raises a serious political and constitutional issue for Americans. Why should Americans, especially those in government positions, accept such honors - even if they don't officially use the title "Sir" when the Constitution expressly forbids it? Article 1, Section 9 stipulates that "No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them [the United States], shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State."

Did "Sir" Ted ask the consent of Congress before accepting the honor? After all, his award came just two weeks after a much worthier recipient, former Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, stirred some controversy by agreeing to become a "Knight of the British Empire."

There is an obvious reason why the Constitution contains this provision. It is meant to prevent Americans from being tempted to accept honors intended to buy their influence or otherwise advance the interests of foreign countries, no matter how friendly. It is the heraldic version of banning "pay to play."

The award to Mr. Warner may seem harmless enough, if illegal. But the honoring of Mr. Kennedy is such a blatant attempt by Mr. Brown to influence American foreign policy that it is astonishing that "Sir" Ted could be induced to accept it, especially in light of his long history of opposition to British policy as a hard-core, unreconstructed Irish-American, and his liberal political viewpoint, which one would have thought would cause him to rebel against such feudal trappings.

That he would accept the award shows the continuing seductive power of such monarchical privileges, which the patriots of 1776 so decisively rejected. Can anyone imagine a Sir George Washington or a Sir Thomas Jefferson?

The decision to confer the accolade is not, of course, that of the Queen, but of Mr. Brown, who, as prime minister, regularly forwards lists of honors for rubber-stamping by Buckingham Palace. So what was Mr. Brown trying to achieve?

One of the main goals of Mr. Brown's official visit to Washington, during which he also sought to ingratiate himself with Mr. Obama at the White House, was to use his contacts with the president and Congress to set himself up as a global leader, who, in concert with the United States, would "save the world" (his words) from economic and financial catastrophe. As chairman of the summit meeting of the G-20 group of leading developed and emerging economies in London on April 2, he hoped to persuade Mr. Obama to join him in an Anglo-American drive to promote global recovery and update the rules of the world economy.

While he got no such nod from Mr. Obama, the president did deign to confirm that the "special relationship," much prized by British leaders, still exists between the United States and Britain, the other main objective of Mr. Brown's groveling in Washington. That, too, was meant to show the voters that under Mr. Brown's leadership, Britain retained the influence required to cure the world's economic ills, and that he is thus the right man to cure Britain's.

Few Britons will be fooled by this obvious attempt to make an end-run around the British domestic opinion polls. And by his disreputable honoring of "Sir" Ted, Mr. Brown may actually have made matters even worse for himself back home.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First Appeared in The Washington Times