The Decline of Titles in Britain

By Dutton, Edward | Contemporary Review, December 2011 | Go to article overview

The Decline of Titles in Britain


Dutton, Edward, Contemporary Review


FOR centuries titles and style have been very important in Britain. Style, to be precise, refers to the words of respect that precede the actual titles such as His Royal Higness when referring to Prince William. Titles in Britain have long been in decline. They are gradually becoming symbols of some bygone age of steam trains and Empire. The Guardian hardly uses them at all. Other newspapers are inconsistent with them and frequently get them wrong. A recent two-page advertisement in The Daily Telegraph advertising a Cunard Cruise to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Queen's accession to the throne next year referred twice to 'Her Royal Highnesss the Queen'. Companies increasingly begin letters 'Dear John Smith' to create social distance without actually seeming 'formal'. Politicians compete to be as informal with each other as possible: 'I agree with Nick' asserted 'Gordon' and 'Dave', as often as they could, during the Election Debates of 2010.

Should we really care if some petty official presumes to address us by our first names? Surely, he's only trying to be friendly and if we insist on being addressed by our title, are we not being needlessly stand-offish and old-fashioned? If we're secure in our status, we don't really need to assert it. Are we not implicitly saying, 'Keep your distance!' This seems to be at least part of the point of the continuing use of titles in schools to the extent of concealing the teachers' first names even on letters to parents. It reflects an attempt to maintain a hierarchy of respect. But using titles can also be a form of rebellion against those who are opposed, ultimately, to freedom of thought.

In Culture Revolution, Culture War (2007), the libertarian philosopher Sean Gabb has charted the left-wing "cultural revolution' which has gradually taken-place in Britain since the 1940s, accelerated noticeably under the New Labour Government of 1997 to 2010. According to the theories of the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci, taking hold of 'the means of production and distribution' is not as important as controlling the way that people think by taking over the 'ideological state apparatus' - schools, the media, universities, the church - and so controlling the assumptions of popular culture. In control, you must do all that you can to denigrate 'the past' - the time before your revolution - in emotive terms: 'out-moded', 'old-fashioned', 'unfair', 'racist' and so forth. You do this in order to create a fundamental break with 'the past' (a bad time) so that you may better control dissent in the present (a good time). As part of this, it is vital to control language and so the ways people think. Significant 'old terms' - which reach back before the revolution - are tabooed and abandoned in favour of new ones or just discarded altogether for the good of some emotional goal such as 'equality'. Any 'conservative' who dissents can thus be branded as immoral. This method robs people of their individuality, creates a further sharp (linguistic) break with the past and ultimately means that people's language - and so their process of thinking and identity - is controlled by the regime because there will be social sanctions, at least, for using the wrong words. The shifts in language are periodically updated to maintain the divide between the superior 'us' and the bad 'conservatives' and, also, just to keep people on edge about what they say and think.

This is the essence of the Political Correctness pursued by New Labour and, of course, of Orwellian Newspeak. And it is directly relevant to the decline in the use of titles in the UK. Titles are a connection to the past. The knighthood can be traced back to the Norman Conquest, 'Sir' being a corruption of "Monsire", so it is no surprise that, in 2004, Labour recommended abolishing the knighthood because it was 'old-fashioned'. 'Baron' and 'Duke' can also be traced back this far. Some of the titles of nobility are even older. …

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