Our system for rewarding public service is an absurd hangover from feudal times. The status it bestows is meaningless
Republicans think the honours system is absurd, with the Queen the font of all honour in the land, clippety-clop, doffety-cap. The image of her three dreadful sons in their garter robes proves the point that hereditary nobility and genuine nobility are almost never the same thing, beyond the imaginings of Disney animators. But we do postcard pomp and mindless status well in Britain. It is Camelot politics – quaint yes, but hardly benevolent. It is a class board game, played three times a year, in which we mass into organised hierarchies, in the manner of gibbering toddlers. Not sure who is above you, and who below? The honours committee, like the sumptuary laws of olde, will tell.
I did not know, for example, that the achievements of the cyclist Bradley Wiggins and the sailor Ben Ainslie (knighthoods) outclassed those of the runner Mo Farah and the heptathlete Jessica Ennis (Commanders of the British Empire) until the honours factory told me. I did not know that Farah and Ennis were also eclipsed by Lord Coe, now a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour, which is essentially a donkey sanctuary for Tory peers, and also by his colleagues on the London 2012 organising committee, Sir Keith Mills and Lord Deighton, now respectively a Knight Grand Cross and a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. If only these doughty collectors of honours had shown the same enthusiasm for procuring seats for those who actually paid for the Games; if only trade unionists got the same thanks for doing their jobs.
In history, the honours system existed simply as an expression of, and means to uphold, royal power. It was a moneyed fist, both carrot and stick. Later, it acted to subsume all talent and potential power to itself. Watching its flailing attempts to democratise, in the same way the royal family was bullied into paying tax and weeping for Diana, is almost the only fun to be had with it. But it is still a feudal beast in the gift of the sovereign, managed by the government and cut with light entertainment “heroes”, because tweedy civil servants assume that were the monarchy elected, Sir Bruce Forsyth would be king. Maybe he would. Who knows? It depends how stupid you think people are and, judging on the percentage of Games tickets withheld for VIPs and VVIPs and even more malevolent and longer acronyms, that might be very stupid indeed.
Angst about reform comes regularly, because an angsty elite looks better than a smug one. Reform always fails, because a system of preference based on hereditary power cannot be reformed. It can only be spun. Its innate corruption is best illustrated by the arguments in its favour. No one waggles photographs of the emperor of Japan in his garter robes to demonstrate the benefit to the public of the honours system, and gongs for civil servants and political allies and favour-doers are as little screamed about, as well they might be. (The cash for honours scandal in 2006 resulted in no prosecutions, because the police eventually realised, as in a Monty Python miasma, that absolutely everyone was complicit and so they would have to arrest the lot of them.)
Earlier this year (Sir) Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service, wrote in these pages that the honours system, far from being yet another expression of hereditary power, and the way in which elites secure that power, exists to reward the little people. (He did not call them that.) It is not for those at the top but those at the bottom, is the dull, dishonest line. It is the refrain of the tyrant of every age.
There is always something to make one laugh, and wince; there is always a giddy refusenik. The breathtaking hubris award is the knighthood for Hector Sants, who was head of the Financial Services Authority before and during the crash, responsible for regulating the City (verdict of MPs on the FSA: “asleep at the wheel”). The new Dame Margaret Beckett is only slightly less horrible, because the Labour party’s first female leader should be more mindful of what her career was for, that is, not being suckered into an elite. The light entertainment award was to Arlene Phillips, the former Strictly Come Dancing judge, although this is probably a swipe at the BBC, who fired Phillips for daring to be middle-aged while female. Danny Boyle, who directed the opening ceremony of the Olympics, declined an honour, which was decent if necessary; had he accepted it, it would have implied he didn’t understand his own work.
It is true that a majority of honours go to those Kerslake calls the “unsung”. Those would be the common honours, named for an empire that no longer exists, unless you want to eat nostalgia, thin as cloud, from tatty commemorative plates. (How descendants of inhabitants of the colonies feel about this retrospective psychic land grab I know not.) Obviously good work is done, but if you believe that monarchy is inherently corrupt, it is absurd for this institution to reward others for selflessness, a limp epilogue to a thousand-year scam.