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Page last updated at 10:57 GMT, Friday, 27 June 2008 11:57 UK

Honour and dishonour

Mugabe's wasn't the only honour to be misjudged
As the Robert Mugabe case demonstrates, giving honorary knighthoods to foreign dignitaries can be a controversial business, says the BBC's world affairs (and former royal) correspondent Paul Reynolds.

Honorary knighthoods - of the kind just withdrawn from Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe - are a diplomatic tool used by Britain to reward its friends and others it regards as worthy folk around the world.

But they are also an embarrassment if somebody does not live up to expectations.

The honorary knighthoods are given by the Queen to non-British or Commonwealth citizens on what is called the "advice", which means the instruction, of the British government.

The recipient is not allowed to use the title "Sir" or in the case of a woman "Dame", much as the latter might amuse American recipients.

The decision to remove an honorary knighthood is also taken by the British government.

The hand of British foreign policy can be seen in many of the awards

In the Mugabe case, there was a rapid about-turn. On Monday, the Minister for Africa Lord Mark Malloch Brown told reporters that removing the honour from Mr Mugabe would not meet the gravity of the situation and would make it seem as if this was all the "mangy British lion" could do. Second thoughts prevailed.

It was a big change from the days when Robert Mugabe was regarded as a hero not only of the liberation of Zimbabwe from white minority rule but as a proponent of reconciliation with the white population.

There have been relatively few disasters. The last time an honorary knighthood was removed was in 1989. It was taken from the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu, shortly after he had been deposed and, as it turned out, only one day before he was shot.

Storming Norman

Ceaucescu had been given his honour during the Cold War when he stood up to the Soviet Union. Nobody looked too deeply at his domestic record, or cared, it seems.

Spike Milligan and Prince Charles
Milligan was one of many Irishmen to receive an honour

Benito Mussolini got one in 1923. It was rescinded in 1940. Better late than never. Fortunately Hitler never made the list.

The hand of British foreign policy can be seen in many of the awards. Caspar Weinberger, who was US Defence Secretary at the time of the Falklands war, was honoured largely because he made sure that the British got the American Sidewinder air-to-air missile that helped stop the Argentine air force.

The end of the Cold War saw a flurry of awards. President Reagan, close ideological friend of Margaret Thatcher, got one. That almost goes without saying.

So too did President George Bush senior, who was president during the first Gulf War in 1991.

"Storming" Norman Schwarzkopf, the US general who led the 1991 Gulf War forces, got his, as did, more controversially, Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Going further back, it is interesting to note that in 1906, the Order of Merit, actually in the gift of the sovereign, and superior to a knighthood, was given to Field Marshal Prince Yamagata Aritomo, of Japan . In those days, Japan was a British ally and British shipyards were building warships for the growing Japanese navy.

Bill Gates receives his knighthood from the Queen
Business and entertainment have their share too

But it is not just presidents and prime ministers who are honoured. They are spread out across the worlds of entertainment and business as well. In recent years the list includes Microsoft head Bill Gates, film director Steven Spielberg, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Irish singer and campaigner Bono and fellow Irishman and campaigner Bob Geldof.

It is perhaps surprising that Irishmen accept this award from the former imperial power. But then the knighthood involves no obligation towards the British monarch by the recipient and it's nice to put on the mantelpiece.

Before that, came comedians Bob Hope, once a Brit himself and Spike Milligan. Milligan, another Irishman, remarked that he would prefer to be a knight of Milton Keynes rather than the British Empire "because it exists".

The British honours system, including the honorary knighthoods, has a remarkable longevity. Despite attempts to reform it root and branch or even end it altogether, it has survived into a new century.

Maybe the Mugabe incident will give pause to those who decide on handing out these baubles.

But my guess is that the system will survive anyway.

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