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What Merit in defeating the republican referendum?

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 16 January 2012


What has John Howard in common with, Joseph Lister, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Edward Elgar, Field Marshals Roberts, Foch, and Joffre, Robert Bridges, John Galsworthy, John Masefield, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Augustus John, Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell, Albert Schweitzer, Henry Moore, Edward Forster, Isaiah Berlin, Kenneth Clark, Laurence Olivier, john Gielgud, Leonard Cheshire, Sydney Nolan, Graham Greene, Mother Teresa, Tom Stoppard, David Attenborough, David Hockney and Nelson Mandela?

Nothing at all except that they are all recipients of that very quaint British royal insignia, The Order of Merit. John Howard the most recent on 1 January 2012.

According to former British diplomat, Stanley Martin, who has written an exhaustive and rather pompous history of the award, it was instituted by the somewhat dissolute, Edward VII on 26 June 1902. It was to have been the date of his coronation but instead he suffered acute appendicitis and his crowning, by necessity, was delayed.

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Even Stanley Martin thinks Bertie an unlikely founder of the award, which sensibly he never awarded to himself – merit not being one of his strong points. Bertie, who only ever read one book in his life, that being the romantic novel, 'East Lynne', by Mrs. Henry Wood, was not known for possessing an intellect. He did however father a number of illegitimate children, in line with a long royal tradition of philandering.

Bertie's father said of him, 'his intellect is of no more use than a pistol packed in the bottom of a trunk if one were attacked in the robber-infested Apennines'; and coming from his father that was quite something.

Bertie received inspiration for his award from his German relatives, before his father and Great Britain went to war against them. In 1740 King Frederick II of Prussia instituted an award known as the Pour le Merite. It was an Order into which military officers and civilians could be admitted. In a portent of things to come, King Frederick William III, in 1810, decreed that the award should only be given to military officers. The award had a French name because, as you would expect, and in common with the Russian royal family, the language of the court was French.

The award was commonly known as the Blue Max, and was handed out to German pilots in WWI who shot down their British and allied counterparts. In any event when Bertie's brother-in-law, King Frederick III (father of Kaiser Bill) died in 1888, after a considerate 99 day reign, Bertie was a bit cut up and at the compulsory funeral, in conversation with his sister, decided to implement an equivalent British award. His mother, in common with other well known monarchs, was not as accommodating as much admired Freddie. Bertie , as noted, had to wait until 1902 and by that stage things were becoming a little competitive with nephew Bill, otherwise known as Kaiser Bill, who was really starting to strut his stuff.

The Statutes of the Order of Merit were promulgated on 23 June 1902. Stanley Martin says, "The Preamble, with all its royal flourishes, recites the authority of the Letters Patent passed under the Statutes...The Order of Merit is to have a Sovereign and one class of Members. That class is to consist of Ordinary and Honorary Members. The Ordinary Members are to be subjects of the Crown who:

may have rendered exceptionally meritorious service in Our Navy and our Army, or who may have rendered exceptionally meritorious service towards the advancement of Art, Literature and Science."

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There can only be 24 Members at any one time. Prince Philip and Prince Charles are both members; Philip because he is the royal consort and Charles because he is the heir to the throne and a conservationist, so already we see the merit thing being stretched a bit.

There is no doubt that many of the recipients are people of exceptional merit, others perhaps not.

One looks to see where John Howard might have achieved exceptional merit; perhaps going to war in Iraq without the consent of the Australian Parliament and Governor-General. Vilifying asylum seekers and ignoring and setting aside Australian Immigration Law in respect to their treatment and claims or the vilification and humiliation of Aboriginals under the Intervention. Merit is not a concept normally associated with John Howard. So why was he recognised in this way by foreigner who also happens to be the head of our country?

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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