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UK knighthoods for foreigners – what it takes to get one

And how to dress up afterwards

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Last weekend the story of Bill Gates' honorary knighthood broke, and the Telegraph happily told us that we could "blame it on Gordon". Well, there's just the teensiest of problems here, in addition to all of the more obvious ones associated with Gates getting a knighthood.

According to our friends at the Palace: "Foreign citizens occasionally receive honorary knighthoods; they are not dubbed, and they do not use the style 'Sir'. Such knighthoods are conferred by The Queen, on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on those who have made an important contribution to relations between their country and Britain."

Note that as Bill will not be dubbed, those of you entertaining the slim hope that the sword might slip will be severely disappointed. More important, however is that "on the advice of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office." So, however helpful it might have been for Gordon, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown that is, to be able to bung Bill a KBE to coincide with the latter's keynoting of Brown's Advancing Enterprise conference on Monday, it was quite simply not in his gift.

We have absolutely no idea how on earth the Telegraph could have got the impression that a government of such integrity (nine out of ten law lords who expressed a preference said it was entirely unimpeachable) could perpetrate such an abuse of protocol and the honours system.

Happily, when the announcement came it was from Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. The FCO stated that Gates "has been awarded an honorary Knighthood by Her Majesty the Queen. The honorary KBE is in recognition of his outstanding contribution to enterprise, employment, education and the voluntary sector in the United Kingdom. He has also made significant contributions to poverty reduction in parts of the Commonwealth and elsewhere in the developing world."

Straw added: "I am delighted that Bill Gates has been awarded this honour; he is one of the most important global business leaders of this age. Microsoft technology has transformed business practices and his company has had a profound impact on the British economy, employing 2,000 people and contributing to the development of the IT sector.

"In 2000 the Gates Foundation announced the single biggest international educational scholarship programme ever established in the United Kingdom. With an estimated worth of US$210 million, it allows 230 students to study at Cambridge University. In addition, his international development work makes the Gates Foundation one of the leading philanthropic organisations of the modern age."

Gates' transformation of business practices is well-documented, and has been commented on at length by legal authorities the world over. Palace protocol more usually requires that honours recipients receive their convictions after their ennoblement, but this has apparently been no barrier this time. And while 2,000 employees may not seem much as an outstanding contribution to enterprise and employment, Straw surely massively understates the job-creation impact of Microsoft software on the British economy. And indeed on economies everywhere.

And a small snapshot of Gates' impact on the UK government puts that largest ever UK educational trust fund into perspective. The UK government alone spends an estimated £100 million a year on Microsoft licences. Halve that, and we could endow a university every three years or so with the change. But it's possibly fortunate that Gates is taking vastly more out of the UK economy than he's putting in - "knighthood... cannot be bought," says the Palace, so it's useful that there's absolutely no question of bribery here.

So did he deserve it? According to the Palace: "Honorary decorations and awards are occasionally granted to people from other countries who have made a significant contribution to relations between the United Kingdom and their own country." Other foreign recipients it cites are former US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Chancellor Kohl, President Mitterrand and Mayor Giuliani of New York, but elsewhere one finds Presidents Reagan and Bush (senior), Wesley Clark, Bob Geldof, Rudolph Giuliani, Billy Graham, Alan Greenspan, Bob Hope, Steven Spielberg, Jean Paul Getty Jr., Yehudi Menuhin, Pelé and Andre Previn. And Lou Gerstner of IBM. That is, there's quite a clutch of them, with a fairly high proportion of the contribution to relations coming from US citizens, and some contributions being even more opaque than Gates'.

Basically, although the honorary KBE has not yet achieved the, uh, breadth of distribution characteristic of modern US military decorations, it most certainly ain't what it used to be, and is pretty close to a meaningless bung the government can dish out to whoever it wants to snuggle up to, for whatever absurd reason that happens to be current. Which we accept is kind of tough luck on people who really did merit it like Geldof, Getty, or even Clark. Or maybe even Bush (senior, of course) - we accept there's a case for him.

Once upon a time it wasn't so. Check out eminent Americans you'd reckon ought to have had a shot at a major British gong and the further back you go, the less likely it is they'll have received one. FDR appears to have nothing more than an honorary doctorate (he did die inconveniently), while Eisenhower was the first American to receive the Order of Merit. This, incidentally, is the one really worth shooting for, as it's selected by the Monarch, rather than on the say-so of mere politicians. Other members have included Winston Churchill, Thomas Hardy and Nelson Mandela.

Back with the honorary KBEs in the cornflakes packet, if you're still grouchy about Gates getting one, comfort yourself by picturing him thus:

"Knights Commander wear around their necks a riband of miniature width of the same colour and pattern as that of Knights Grand Cross (the pearl grey stripe of Military Knights Commanders being about one sixteenth of an inch in width) and pendent therefrom the badge of the Knights Commanders of the Order, which shall be of a similar form and pattern to that appointed for Knights Grand Cross, but of smaller size, and also wear on the left side of their coats or outer garments a chipped silver Star composed of four greater and four lesser points, charged with a medallion as before, while Dames Commander wear a badge of similar form and pattern as that appointed for Knights Commander, attached to a riband, also similar to that worn by Knights Commander, but tied in a bow and worn on the left shoulder, and they wear a like Star."

You learn something every day. Thanks to Debrett's. ®

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