Honours is a hierarchy of gifts that’s little more than a stroking mechanism for plutocrats and colleagues of Bruce Forsyth
The Commons public administration select committee wants to reform the honours system. It believes the perception is that the powerful get gongs for “doing the day job”, that not enough “normal” people are rewarded, and the prime minister’s list is a gift bag he hands out at parties. The CBE for Helena Bonham Carter, announced the day before she was photographed tramping through Buckinghamshire with the Camerons, was odd, it is true, but wiser heads insisted it was for her performance in The King’s Speech, not for services to walking while talking. Honours should, the committee concluded, be stripped of political influence and, to this end, there should be reform – for the second time in this millennia. It was a fabulous piece of Tory inclusive-speak, reminiscent of the time prime minister put a wind turbine on his roof in Notting Hill, and called himself a very green activist.
We honour the unsung, wrote Bob Kerslake, head of the civil service (knighted in 2006), in Comment is free this week, and only those civil servants who “go the extra mile” are honoured. No one gets them automatically; there are no quotas or privileges. “Nothing could be further from the truth” was his anguished denial.
Hmm. Was the knighthood thrown at Jeremy Heywood the day before he was elevated to cabinet secretary some marvellous coincidence? Or the four honours given to the former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell during his career, such a pile of honours that to type his name correctly now takes days of research? (Far easier to call him by his official codename, which is GOD.) Kerslake blinds us with statistics: 71% of the public like the honours system; 72% of the last list were for voluntary or charity work. (Presumably the other 28% were the usual suspects.) It is not elite, and it is not a stroking mechanism for plutocrats and Bruce Forsyth and GOD. It is full of lollipop ladies.
His piece ended with a call to apply for honours. He did not go so far as to recommend that Guardian readers anxious for an honour contact the specialists, Awards Intelligence – “If you want to see yourself or your candidate on the honours list, make sure your nomination has what it takes to make it all the way to Buckingham Palace! There is no application fee!” – but he should have. It would have been transparent.
What to say to honours? They are objectively amusing. A knighthood for Peter Bazalgette of Big Brother and Ready, Steady Cook, a man who has ruined many Z-list lives. Another for David Reid, chairman of Tesco, purveyors of Cheesestring Attack A Ham Snack Wrap. Honours for bad TV, bad journalism, bad acting, bad food; the elite stirs the zeitgeist with a stick, sees what floats to the surface, and sucks it in. Sometimes it is the spy Anthony Blunt, sometimes it is Ronnie Corbett, although the list of those who refuse them is distinguished, usually artists who know they need to be outsiders to survive – Frank Auerbach, Alan Bennett, EM Forster, Michael Frayn. (My favourite refusnik was Francis Bacon. He said they were “so ageing”.)
Even if it is fun enjoying the cognitive dissonance of light entertainment heroes kneeling at the palace and seeing the ease with which political friendships are rewarded, the honours system has simply moved on from being explicitly corrupt to mildly corrupt. Francis Pym would probably not say today, as he did in 1998 when he was chairman of the political honours scrutiny committee, that political donees deserved honours because they “put their money where his mouth is”. He is dead, so he couldn’t. And the Labour party would probably not suggest an honour for people who loaned them money today, as they did back in 2005. (Technically life peerages are not honours, but in reality they are.)
You always had to know how to ask. When the writer William Donaldson, masquerading as a fictional fish magnate called Henry Root, wrote to Lord McAlpine in 1979 asking to purchase a peerage – “there would be something in this for you personally” – McAlpine replied: “I am sure you are well aware that there is absolutely no question of purchasing a peerage from the Conservative party … I return your £1 note herewith.” So it didn’t work for Root, nor did it work for the hedge funder Paul Ruddock in 2011. He was awarded a knighthood for his work at the Victoria and Albert museum – definitely not because he had previously given £500,000 to the Tory party.
Even if the honours system were entirely stripped of “the usual suspects” – which I suspect could never be done, since achievement is often dependent on education – honours are the gift of the sovereign, a reward for service, whether self-serving, genuinely altruistic or just silly; and they have their own inbuilt hierarchy of gifts. (For more details on what you can hope for, see Awards Intelligence.) To respect the honours system, no matter how inclusive it shifts itself to be, is to respect the monarchy; if you are a republican, any reform is a plaster on a severed head.