“Her Majesty has been pleased…”. Really? Can we be sure in an age where honours are distributed to everyone from spin doctors, to sex shop executives, to serial party donors, that the 90 year old monarch in whose name these gongs are distributed is even aware how discredited so many of them have become? When Lynton Crosby kneels down to get his knighthood how much is known about a career which couples the darkest of political arts in election campaigns with an equally unsavoury link to the major tobacco companies? When Gary Barlow held up his OBE for the cameras did any of the committees charged with background checks notice anything untoward in his tax avoidance activities?Did anyone pause to wonder why the Baroness Mone’s suitability as a business czar and peer was not run past Mr Cameron’s Scottish troops first?
The connection between putting cash into party coffers and parking your behind on the red benches now happens with a rapidity which would have made Lloyd George blush. Also “elevated” are an increasing number of erstwhile MP’s who have either carelessly lost their seats, or whose constituencies were needed for a favoured candidate.
Tony Blair’s absurd decision to leave 92 hereditary peers in the mix when the rest were shown the door in 1999 led to the ludicrous spectacle last week of three Lib Dems “electing” ex MP Lord Thurso to their ranks to fill the “vacancy” occasioned by Lord Avebury’s death. Incidentally the same party which has an 8 strong posse in the Commons, has 105 peers in a swollen upper chamber of 810 – 200 more than the Commons whose legislation they scrutinise. David Cameron is creating Life Peers at an accelerated rate of knots to try and dilute the anti Tory Lords majority.
And we still, in allegedly multi faith, increasingly secular Britain, have room for 24 Cof E bishops.The assortment of ranks and sub ranks accompanying lesser gongs has a somewhat Ruritarian air to it; famously Captain John Ridgeway and Sergeant Chay Blyth were given differently weighted recognition for rowing the Atlantic. The civil service is in receipt of a particularly arcane set of rewards, often for services to sitting at the same or similar desks for long enough. Lin Homer became a Dame recently having been savaged by two separate committees for serial failures at the then UK Border Agency, and HMRC.
Rewarding incompetency or worse is not a new phenomenon of course; Harold Wilson was happy to recognise the fraudster Lord Kagan, and the less said about Cyril Smith’s knighthood the better. Doubtless the man who was honoured for styling the locks of the Prime Minister and assorted film stars has a particularly fine set of scissors. But could anyone really finish their breakfast the day they realised Mark Thatcher had just inherited a baronetcy? The fact that the honours system is both class ridden and still utilising imperial titles makes it particularly unsuitable for the 21st century. What a nonsense it was bringing the British Empire Medal back into the pecking order when it had been properly consigned to history 20 years earlier.
The sadness of all of this is that there are very many people within those lists who HAVE given sterling service, who HAVE gone the extra mile in their lives or employment, who very much deserve public recognition for their extraordinary contribution.
The fact that they are involuntarily lumped with the bad, mad and dangerous to know is unfortunate and wholly unjust. That’s why I used the Saltire Society’s 80th birthday event yesterday to offer an alternative for Scotland. In the years they’ve celebrated Scottish achievements, the Society has expanded its own awards. I think in particular of the Fletcher of Saltoun awards now given for excellence in science and public service as well as culture. This is surely a template which could be further expanded to embrace very particular achievement in all fields on a completely egalitarian basis. Obviously the who and the how of the judgements made could be a minefield. But not a patch on the 8 ringed circus of committees now involved in the UK honours industry.
So let’s have new Scottish awards untainted by party politics or preferment. Awards for excellence not gongs for long and unremarkable service.
We have carriage clocks for that.
First published in the Sunday Herald