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For the 97th time, TSO has published the New Year Honours List. Yet again, over a thousand people are to receive a chivalric medal, and perhaps a title, in a lavish ritual with Her Majesty. Again, the prime minister is raising eyebrows with his choice in economists and nightclub owners. And yet again, somebody is bound to turn their decoration down. This begs the question: why is the 97th Honours List so much like the first?
This year’s Diplomatic Service and Overseas List sent out honours to sensitive regions like the Falklands, Gibraltar, and Libya, where Brits – and particularly Brits imitating Crusaders – aren’t always welcome. Many ‘reluctant’ knights have ditched their honorifics, or sometimes the whole ceremony, thanks to the Order’s military heritage. There is something faintly ridiculous about brand new paraphernalia from a bygone empire, but also insulting for people who remember fighting for independence. This was obvious enough even when the British Empire was around. The “the” in the Order’s adage, “For God and the Empire”, was introduced merely to cover empty space on the medals.
Another lingering stench is the cash-for-honours scandal. In 2006, the Jewish MP Lord Levy was charged with doctoring the Honours List to raise funds for New Labour. So many undisclosed party donations were revealed, making Levy so infamous, that Alan Sugar denounced the prosecution for anti-Semitism. Ultimately, Levy was found not guilty. Only one person, Lloyd-George’s broker, was ever convicted of trading honours. Despite this, party donors remain over 6,000 times more likely to receive an honour than the average voter. Troublingly, one former Liberal Democrat fundraiser also claims that “every one of the [donors] had done other things for the party.”
Some names this year clearly don’t represent British interests. Jayne-Anne Gadhia, CEO of Virgin Money, became a CBE. Despite a patriotic image, her franchise is closely related with tax avoidance. Similarly, Paul Tucker, former Deputy Governor to the Bank of England, became a Knight Bachelor. He was embroiled in the LIBOR scandal, which cost Barclays £290,000,000 in fines, but claims to have done “absolutely nothing wrong.”
There are, however, some people who deserve the recognition. Previous recipients have ranged from broadcasters to beekeepers. Our very own Deputy Faculty Manager, Lesley Waite, is receiving a medal for services to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. People who can demonstrate bravery, charity, or humanity without some vested interest should be celebrated. For their sake, reforming the honours would be more help than abolishing them.
First and foremost, decision-making procedures have to change. Right now, fortunately, anyone can make a nomination. The ultimate say is the prime minister’s, but how his ministers decide their counsel is unclear. Some nominations are investigated by HMRC in order to avoid any post-obit scandals but that clearly doesn’t count for much. Some believe that only compliant favourites from the civil service stand a chance. Others think celebrities are singled out on which would make the party most popular.
For some honours, there is no decision to make. Ministerial mandarins who stick around for long enough are rewarded simply for holding the right post. This ‘automaticity’ is particularly clear when the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George is given to clerks and undersecretaries in the FCO. An old joke in the civil service sums up the grades nicely: CMG stands for “Call Me God”, KCMG stands for “Kindly Call Me God”, and the most prestigious title, GCMG, stands for “God Calls Me God”.
These concerns were already raised in real parliamentary reports. Former prime minister John Major tried to end the inequality in honours by abandoning the British Empire Medal, or “worker’s gong”, but ended up eliminating many ordinary people from nominations. There was also talk under Tony Blair of removing the militaristic overtones from honours, for instance, by renaming the Commanders, “Companions”. Most importantly, in 2004, they strongly endorsed an independent selection body that uses clear and consistent criteria. The report was ignored.
By listening to their own investigators, the government could ensure that people making the world an easier place to live in are properly recognised and save the ministry the humiliation of trying to pick uncontroversial candidates for a partial regime. That would surely make the Honours List 2015 live up to the name.