The honours system stinks. Here’s how we can fix it

by Kevin Meagher

How many times down the years has British politics had one of those sporadic bouts of angst – some of it even real – about the system for awarding political honours?

Those moments when we just know the system is being abused and that so many of those awarded honours are thoroughly undeserving.

Inevitably, infuriatingly, the moment passes. Nothing is done, until the next time a dodgy peerage or questionable ‘k’ surfaces.

David Cameron’s resignation honours, published last night in full, should now be a line in the sand.

They are probably the most egregious shopping list of acolytes, time-servers, hangers-on and financial backers that an outgoing PM has ever sought fit to reward.

Can you imagine the furore if Tony Blair had given Alistair Campbell a knighthood? Cameron has given one to his press secretary, Craig Oliver.

There are awards, too, for a ‘conference planner,’ a Conservative Central Office bureaucrat, a Tory activist, chauffeurs, spin doctors and policy wonks. Meanwhile, there are six peerages for former special advisers and for Andrew Fraser, the treasurer of the Conservative Party.

I would dearly love to hear a psychiatrist’s assessment of why rich, educated and successful people feel the need to have ‘Sir’ or ‘Lady’ put before their names or an acronym appended to it.

Status gluttony?

Which brings me to Will Straw.

The founder of evidence-based centre-left blog, Left Foot Forward has been awarded a CBE. This is no surprise, given the Sunday Times reported on it days ago. But it is still a shock.

A shock because the award is hardly, how can I put it, ‘evidence-based’. His citation reads: ‘Lately Executive Director of the Stronger In Campaign. For political and public service’.

That would be, of course, the losing campaign. Or perhaps, to be more accurate, the laughably inept, was-always-heading-for-the-rocks campaign.

Will is a talented man, (the dismal ‘Remain’ campaign aside) but, clearly, he’s willing to endure ridicule to fill his plate at the status buffet. (It’s clearly not enough that his father remains a privy councillor and his mother is chairman of the Post Office).

Then there’s Shami Chakrabarti. The former director of Liberty is to become a Labour peer. This comes after her investigation into allegations of anti-Semitism and racism in the party.

While giving Labour a clean bill of health she did find there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. (Quite how something can be ‘occasionally’ toxic is moot).

Nevertheless, she did a lot of good work promoting civil rights and personal freedom in the decade or so she headed Liberty, often being a noisy irritant to ministers who deserved to be irritated.

But why would a champion of civil rights, a watchdog who has spent a decade peering suspiciously at the over-mighty state, want to join our unelected second chamber?

She should be stood outside in Parliament Square demanding the House of Lords is scrapped.

And her elevation shortly after absolving the party of culpability for anti-Semitism is clumsy, to say the least.

It all points to the same conclusion: the honours system is rotten to the core. Adrift in a sea of moral relativism. Little more than a passing out parade for an out-of-touch political, media and business class obsessed with self-aggrandisement.

The quickest and cleanest way of reforming it is, frankly, to abandon it altogether. But, short of that, here are a few suggestions for making this discredited system a little less dreadful:

No-one should get anything for doing their paid day job. This sounds harsh. ‘But what about the civil servants? The head-teachers? The ‘lollipop people?’’ Or, to look at it another way, what about the unpaid carers? Or the charity volunteers? We should use the honours system to reward selflessness and unremunerated community leadership. An index-linked pension should be enough reward for ‘Sir’ Humphrey.

No-one should get anything – ever – for their money. Donations to political parties or sock puppet philanthropy should automatically exclude consideration for an honour. The rich should be disconnected from the system entirely.

The Prime Minister’s resignation honours should be scrapped. It’s simply a mechanism for outgoing premiers to scratch the backs of those who scratched theirs, as we have just seen. This is a modest proposal that, with a bit of pressure, might even get the sensible and unshowy Theresa May to support it.

Honours should be entirely private. There should be no formal title. No expectation that the oiks will be bowing and scraping. The honour should be entirely symbolic. So no ‘Sir’ Philip Green when plain old Philip will do. Awards should be treated like honorary doctorates, where it would be unseemly and tawdry to ever try and use the title in address.

And if anyone still needs persuading that reform is overdue, just process the fact that Samantha Cameron’s taxpayer-funded ‘Girl Friday,’ Isabel Spearman, has just been given an OBE.

For what, might we wonder? As the Daily Mail puts it she was in charge of ‘styl[ing] her hair, buy[ing] in her wardrobe and even pack[ing] her suitcases.’

The case for reform is, quite literally, closed.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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6 Responses to “The honours system stinks. Here’s how we can fix it”

  1. Roddie says:

    Isn’t it quaint how people have such short memories. Google “lavender list 1976” to see Harold Wilson’s Resignation Honours List, which included MBEs for his personal driver and housekeeper.

  2. Anne says:

    I think David Cameron has certainly abused his position – most of the people he has recommended for honours have done nothing extraordinary to deserve such honours. I also think it is very hypocritical of Shami Chakrabarti to be given any such honour – for producing a very mediocre report on anti semitism. It just makes a mockery of the honours system. If Teresa May is displeased with these recommendations she is in a position to do something about it.

  3. John says:

    Shami chakrbarti was the biggest hypocrite going, when Walter Wolfgang was taken out of the labour conference by security, and A PC outside gave him a Stop and account form, explaining the PCs actions he had no power to tell the security to let him back in, a policy introduced after the Stephen Lawrence report, to account for police actions, Wolfgang could have left any time he wanted ,she said he was stopped and searched

    I’d be appealed if she goes to the lords, taking the labour whip, she’d probably vote to scrap armed police

  4. Anna says:

    I agree that awards for political services have got to go. Why can’t the parties have their own awards for services given – just like other organisations such as the RNLI which gives awards for bravery and also for fundraising?

    Honours should be awarded only for gallantry and voluntary public service. And we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that most honours are well-deserved. My husband got an OBE for voluntary charitable work and the vast majority of people at the investiture had similarly given quiet, unstinting and cheerful service to others.

  5. DJ says:

    I wonder how much these ceremonies cost the taxpayer? If we are needing to make cuts then stopping people less deserving than Sir Killalot from getting an honour would be an ideal place to start.

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