My favourite tale of ennoblement is disputed but carries such symbolic resonance that I like to think it’s true. King James I, it is said, so enjoyed his tasty loin of beef that he drew his short sword and knighted it. And there was no one to stop him. Arise Sir Loin.
With the publication of the New Year’s Honour’s List, many more deserving cases move up in the world today. It is right to applaud a great many of the individuals, particularly those who have indeed performed notable public service or added to the gaiety of the nation.
Who would begrudge the veteran actors Barbara Windsor and Sian Phillips their damehoods? Or awards to Lord Darzi and to actor James Nesbitt, whose OBE recognises, in part, his work with families affected by the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Or a knighthood for Dr Michael Jacobs from the Royal Free Hospital, recognised for the work performed there in fighting Ebola? Or the medals given to Jonjo Heuerman, the 13 year old who raised £235,000 for cancer research and Dorothy Start, the 99 year old singled out for a life of community work in Barnet, north London.
Society should have a way of rewarding those who genuinely make a difference, not least because it allows us to reassert the communal belief that there is such a thing as society. The theory is sound. It’s the practice that is starting to look ridiculous.
Look down the list for the consolation prize awards to displaced politicians, the ideologically motivated awards as a thank you to around 30 Tories, and to officials who have pushed forward pet ministerial policies.
Consider the very fact that recipients become knights and dames, members and commanders of a British empire that was pretty rum in its heyday and now doesn’t exist. The fact that the selection process seems just as arbitrary as James l ennobling his dinner. The fact that those who want nothing to do with the royal family, any of the 20% who identify as republicans, are effectively ruled out for recognition they may well deserve.
Weigh up those deficiencies; then consider everything about a system – supposedly communal – that has led nonetheless to the hotly contested inclusion on the list of the hugely divisive Conservative party strategist Lynton Crosby, aka the Lizard of Oz. An award, one imagines, for provision of dark arts to the ruling party and for lowering the taste bar in British elections. If this is payback, it is also reckless. A cynical mind might think his name was added to engineer a backlash and precipitate a rethink.
What this says is that the independent scrutiny doesn’t count for much and that the system cannot stay in the hands of a select bunch. Why should it? In this age of social media and instant communication, why not open up an awards process, stripped of yearning for empire, stripped of the monarchy, directly to the people? If an online petition with 100,000 signatures can secure a debate in the Commons, if referendums can decide Britain’s future in Europe, why can’t the wisdom of crowds determine who does and who doesn’t get a bauble? Public votes rather than a little-known committee, might also play a greater role in deciding who should be stripped of an honour as punishment for proven misdemeanour, something our existing system has been slow to do. Those who earn favour can lose it. The public should give, the public should take away.
Why bother, you say. The current arrangements do no harm. But that’s not true. No one can look at today’s list and call it a shared endeavour. It is the work of a government so cocksure that it has ceased to care what anyone – inside or outside parliament – really thinks.
The problem here is manipulation of the system, but it is also the system. For within the limited gift of the establishment, honours as we know them help distort the checks and balances of public life. How many MPs have toed the line, fearing that to do otherwise might imperil the honour they were hoping for? How many captains of industry or Whitehall officials or quango bosses or media proprietors seeking establishment validation to cap or enhance their careers, have consequently declined to rock the boat?
Let’s not be churlish. Lynton Crosby may be the equivalent of Sir Loin, but there were 1,196 honoured this time, and most deserve the plaudits. One can be happy for them and still long for a better way to pat them on the back.