Honours dis-honoured again.
Dishonourable and honourable honours
What hope is there of reform of the honours system that is loved by the political elites?
Why not be honest and acknowledge that honours are sold now?
The views expressed here are my personal opinions as a constituency Member of Parliament and as a member of The Public Administration Select Committee. They are not expressions of the policy of the Labour Party or statements by me in my capacities as Shadow Leader of the House or Shadow Secretary of State for Wales
There is an unedifying row today on Cameron's retirement honours-only the 10 Downing street cat was left out. Cameron has form on adding to the degradation of the Honours System when he set up a wholly novel Political Honours Committee in 2011 to gift 20 gongs a year to politicians and political aides. It's run by the whips who reward MPs for slavish obedience to their parties.
I submitted this minority report to a Select Committee report a few years ago. Cameron's handing out honours like Goodie Bags at a children's party make reform more urgent
1. The Honours system is both a popular institution and also a dishonoured relic of the past that strengthens class divisions in British Society. It has honourable and dishonourable histories.
2. The beneficiaries of the major awards are the rich, the powerful and the famous. These are ceremonially bestowed by the Queen or Prince Charles. Minor lowly awards are handed unceremoniously by Lord Lieutenants to thousands of people of modest means and humble jobs. Great numbers of people doing splendid voluntary work or who contribute beyond the call of duty are ignored and un-rewarded. The limit of the total of awards is that there is a far greater proportion of aspirant BEMs that are disregarded than the aspirant knights.
3. The present architecture of the honours system institutionalises snobbery and privilege and cements class divisions. Those who are already over-privileged by wealth, birth, fame or fortune are further rewarded with titles and medals.
4. Knighthoods and peerages are freely distributed in abundance to the tax-avoiding comedians, overpaid bankers or dreary political time-servers. Dedicated charity workers who have inspired and innovated are less fortunate. Teachers, local authority workers, nurses or postmen appear amongst the awards with demeaning minor gongs. Michael Winner famously refused to accept an OBE because that was what he said should be offered to a 'toilet cleaner at King’s Cross Station'. His comment is accurate. The Honours are distributed, not of meritorious service, but on the ranking of the recipient in the social ladder of snobbery.
5. The dark history includes selling honours from the times of James 1 in 1611 to Lloyd George in the 1920s. Sales were understood by the public. They had a robust honesty. The rich paid for their baubles of vanity. The poor judged their worth by more reliable criteria. To reduce the deficit, a return to the historic precedent should be seriously considered. The vain-glorious should be allowed to contribute to the nation’s wealth. Vanity could be a rich source of finance for the nation’s coffers.
6. While there is reluctance to accept the full truth, honours are still bought by party donors. There is a transparently untrue pretence that merit is the main criterion for political honours. All major parties have cynically used the honours system to advance their agendas, to dispose of the troublesome, to silence the soothsayers or to reward their lobotomised loyalists. A knighthood is a convenient lollypop to persuade the bed-blockers to vacate their seats. Promotion to the Lords has been used to put the rebellious into places where they can do less harm.
7. Having served on the PASC committee in the last parliament investigating the Cash for Honours scandal, I concluded that the evidence pointed to a causal link between party donations and honours. Unfortunately the evidence that was available was insufficient to establish a formal public charge by the committe
8. In the 2012 New Year’s honours list there was well founded press derision on the obvious links between donations and knighthoods. A disgraced property tycoon and a hedge fund trader who cashed in on the credit crunch were both in the New Year Honours list.
9. Ex-convict Gerald Ronson – the great survivor of the Guinness share-trading scandal – was made a CBE. There was a knighthood for Tory donor Paul Ruddock, who has given more than £500,000 to party coffers since 2003.
10. His firm, Lansdowne Partners, made a staggering £100million from the financial crash by betting that the price of Northern Rock shares would fall and also made millions in a matter of days by predicting the likely slide of other banking shares. The wages of greed are handsome and partly paid in honours.
11. The automatic system of awards among the civil service and the military encourages deference. All will be rewarded in turn if they respect a system of unquestioning obedience to their immediate superiors. There are few rewards for the original thinkers, the pioneers or the innovators. The civil service ethos is based on the supremacy of subservience and the unimportance of being right. The present grey uninspired political and civil service mandarins prove that mediocrity dominates.
12. The monarch has influence over only a handful of gongs. The choices are exercised by the ludicrously un-representative Lord Lieutenants and the Honours Committees whose members are weighed down with their own surfeit of medals. The establishment is rewarding itself and reproducing itself in its own image. Lord Lieutenants are chosen from those who are free to do full time work without pay. They appoint groups of deputies from friends of similar rank and social standing. The elite have the power to reward the elite. If the public became aware of the self-serving freemasonry who preside over the distribution of honours they would be rightly angered by the patronising cheat of a fundamentally unfair system.
13. The present Honours System fosters and strengthens a society of ossified class barriers and endemic drabness.
14. At various times from 1611 to 1920s honours have been sold to fill the nation's treasury. The creation of the Order of the British Empire in 1917 reflected the jingoism of a county at war. The Empire celebrated no longer exists. Its legacy is a mixed one. It includes the creation of practical and progressive institutions and major injustices where local population were oppressed and mis-used. For many people of ethnic minority origins the word 'Empire' is tarnished. It would be sensible to replace 'Empire' with 'Excellence' as recommended by a previous PASC committee.
15. The suggestion by one witness that the award should be renamed the British Citizen’s Medal would be acceptable to subjects and citizens.
16. John Major and Tony Blair attempted to detoxify the class based system by spreading awards beyond their traditional dominance by the military and civil servants. These were progressive uses of Prime Ministerial directives. David Cameron's plans to use awards to shore up his controversial ’Big Society' policy, described as 'aspirational waffle' by the Archbishop of Canterbury, is less defensible. He also wishes to further reward philanthropists who fill funding gaps resulting from Government 'Big Society' cuts. These changes are likely to distort priorities in favour of those seeking prime ministerial approval, political advancement or philanthropists who make a public show of their generosity. David Cameron's present use of honours to advance party political ends or policies of questionable value is novel in recent times. It will further politicise the honours system and the unpopularity of the ‘Big Society’ will plunge the honours into disrepute. This is a new abuse of the honours system.
17. Much evidence was heard of the pleasure enjoyed by the recipients of honours. We hear nothing about those whose nominations are repeatedly and mysteriously rejected. They suffer the pangs of perplexed disappointment. Often aspirant candidates are baffled when honours are given to those whose achievements are indistinguishable from those achieved by thousands of their colleagues.
18. Greater transparency is likely to increase public cynicism.
19. A widely respected honours system exists in Wales. The Gorsedd of Bards admits members on the basis of excellence demonstrated by examinations or awarded on the basis of merit in service to the nation of Wales. The awards enjoy public trust because of their history of recognising fairly achievements from all sectors of Welsh life from the sporting arenas to the political assemblies.
20. The unwelcome creation of a new body, the Parliamentary and Political Service Honours Committee to distribute honours to MPs and parliamentary staff has been treated with widespread derision. EDM 137 reads:- That this House believes that the highest honour attainable by a democrat in this country is achieving the office of Member of Parliament; is surprised that without the knowledge or consent of Parliament, a committee has been set up to give four knighthoods and 21 minor honours to hon. Members and other political staff; further believes that this act of self-aggrandisement will be regarded with contempt by the public; and asserts that the committee's dominant membership of chief whips and other establishment figures brands it as an unwelcome instrument of patronage that will expose recipients of awards to ridicule.
21. Twenty five years ago, all Conservative MPs were automatically given knighthood for completing 20 years of services. The rare exception was the MP Robert Adley who was a distinguished but independently minded MP. No Labour MP then accepted honours. The automatic awards were a useful tool for maintaining obedience of backbench MPs to the demand of the Executive. The re-introduction of parliamentary awards is a retrograde step. We urge the abolition of the Parliamentary Honours Committee.
22. It was claimed that honours were not given to those who had simply ‘given a load of money to a charity’. Those who give money unselfishly to charity are anonymous. Awards go only to those who allow that charity giving to be made public. The convincing evidence is that large gifts to charity are linked with awards. If it was not so, there were be no potency in the claim that rewarding philanthropists encourages more donations – presumably in the hope of buying gongs. The impression that honours can be bought is a widespread and damaging perception.
23. The present decisions on awards are made by individuals who are not representative of society as a whole. Lord Lieutenants and the Honours Committees should be replaced by independent committees governed by rules set by a cross-party parliamentary committee, independent of Government control. Our predecessor Committee recommended that an Honours Committee should be established following the precedent of the Electoral Commission. This would be a sensible reform and would lead to better informed decisions through improved accountability and transparency.