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Last Updated: Monday, 26 January 2004, 11:00 GMT
'Arise, er, Mister Gates'
Bill Gates' honorary knighthood won't allow him use the title "Sir Bill". So what's the point in citizens of a proud republic taking titles they can't use?

Clockwise from top left: Gates, Giuliani, Spielberg, Hope
Bill Gates joins a long line of US luminaries to get a gong
Despite the queues of American tourists outside Buckingham Palace, a deep-rooted suspicion of the British monarchy is as American as mom and apple pie.

While many Americans are interested in the Royal Family, few would be very keen on becoming subjects of Her Majesty.

So why is Microsoft chairman Bill Gates - a proud American - going to accept a title from the British Queen? Is there no conflict between the two?

He is by no means alone in doing so - before him have been Rudy Giuliani, Steven Spielberg, Bob Hope, Billy Graham, George Mitchell, Norman Schwarzkopf and George Bush senior.

None have the right to use the title "Sir". None have been on one knee; none have been tapped on the shoulders with a sword (the ceremony called "dubbing"); none have heard the magic words "Arise, Sir -".

Call me 'mister'

So with no ceremony and no title, what's the point?

Although they cannot use the title Sir, they can use the appropriate letters after their name to specify which order they are a knight of. Mr Gates, for instance, will be made a Knight Commander of the British Empire, which allows him to use the letters KBE after his name.

Knight on horseback
Bill Gates will not be a real knight
There are many different kinds of knighthoods, each of which has a different significance.

Mr Gates' gong dates back to 1917 in recognition of those who had helped the British war effort.

It has developed into a more general award; foreigners can now be given an honorary award for "services rendered to the United Kingdom and its peoples". In his case, for enterprise, education and the voluntary sector in the UK; in Mr Giuliani's for helping the families of British people killed in the World Trade Center attacks.

Sir Bob

Bob Geldof is perhaps the most famous recipient of an honorary knighthood, for his work with Live Aid. Being an Irish citizen, he was not eligible for a knighthood proper, but this has not stopped the media referring to him as "Sir Bob".

Ethiopia
Bob Geldof in Ethiopia in 1985
Marjorie Scardino, the boss of media company Pearson, which owns the Financial Times, was given an honorary damehood because she was a Canadian citizen.

But in 2002 she became a British citizen, and thus had her award converted from an honorary to what is termed a "substantive" title.

The awarding of titles to Canadians - who recognise the Queen as their head of state - has not always been so simple.

In 2001, Canada's then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien flew into a rage when honorary knighthoods were given to George Bain, the vice chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, and the high-tech billionaire Terence Matthews.

Mr Chrétien complained to both the Queen and Tony Blair about the legality of the awards he deemed "not compatible with Canadian ideas of democracy".

Ordinary Canadian citizens cannot accept knighthoods - unless they also qualify for a UK passport. However, the ruling elite - including prime ministers - can add honorific titles to their names.

Stripped of citizenship

It is widely assumed that US citizens are also excluded from taking honours from other countries; as the long list of Americans who have done shows, this is not so.

But not for want of republican effort. A constitutional amendment to outlaw such awards was written back in 1810 - just before Britain and the US resumed their warring ways.

"If any citizen of the United States shall accept, claim, receive or retain any title of nobility or honour, or shall, without the consent of Congress - from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power, such person shall cease to be a citizen of the United States, and shall be incapable of holding any office of trust."

Fortunately for the Microsoft chairman - and the printer of his business cards - the amendment is one of six submitted but never ratified.




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