There is an unedifying row today on David Cameron's retirement honours list – only the 10 Downing Street cat was left out.
The former prime minister has been accused of "cronyism" after four pro-EU cabinet colleagues – Philip Hammond, Michael Fallon, David Lidington and Patrick McLoughlin – were recommended for knighthoods, despite the Brexit vote last month. Tory party donors Ian Taylor and Andrew Cook – who together have given the Conservatives more than £2.6m ($3.4m) – were both put forward. Even Samantha Cameron's stylist, Isabel Spearman, was nominated for an OBE.
Cameron has form on adding to the degradation of the honours System. 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 a minority report to Select Committee report a few years ago, here are some highlights below. As we're handing out honours like goody bags at a children's party, the need for reform is even more urgent.
- The honours system is both a popular institution and also a dishonoured relic of the past that strengthens class divisions in British society. The present architecture of the honours system institutionalises snobbery and privilege and cements class divisions. Those who are already over-privileged by birth are further rewarded with titles and medals.
- The beneficiaries of the major awards are the rich, the powerful and the famous. These are ceremonially bestowed by the Queen or Prince Charles. Great numbers of people doing splendid voluntary work or who contribute beyond the call of duty are ignored and un-rewarded. The honours are distributed, not of meritorious service, but on the ranking of the recipient in the social ladder of snobbery.
- Knighthoods and peerages are freely distributed in abundance to the tax-avoiding comedians, overpaid bankers and 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 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. While there is reluctance to accept the full truth, honours are still bought by party donors.
- 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. Promotion to the Lords has been used to put the rebellious into places where they can do less harm.
- Having served on the PASC (Public Administration Select Committee) 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 committee.
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. 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. His firm, Lansdowne Partners, made a staggering £100m from the financial crash. The wages of greed are handsome and partly paid in honours.
- 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.
- The monarch has influence over only a handful of gongs. The choices are exercised by the ludicrously unrepresentative 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.
- 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. The suggestion by one witness that the award should be renamed the British Citizen's Medal would be acceptable.
- 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. This is a new abuse of the honours system.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Paul Flynn has been MP for Newport West since 1987.