26 July 2012
From radical to
sycophant: how the
honours system works
L S Lowry, who didn't fancy a gong
A successful Scottish businessman was once described to me as 'a crook'. I regarded my informant, a senior figure in the public sector, as a bit dodgy himself, so I considered two possible interpretations: either that there was a history of rivalry between the two, or that the businessman was very naughty indeed.
Whatever the explanation, it came as no great surprise that both subsequently received awards in the honours list, thereby providing ammunition for those who believe that admission to 'the establishment' is incompatible with the concept of integrity. One of the recipients was given a 'higher' award than the other, perhaps ensuring continuing antipathy between the two.
It would be unfair, however, to conclude from this episode that the honours system has simply become a rogues' gallery. It is true that among those who have been elevated to the House of Lords are a few people who subsequently acquired criminal convictions, and there are others who may have been fortunate to escape prosecution. But in recent years there has been a conscious effort to include more 'ordinary' people who make an important contribution to the quality of life in Britain in a variety of contexts, including charitable work, sport, and a range of occupations in which public service is a powerful motivation.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that the most prestigious awards tend to go in familiar directions – to senior civil servants and military figures, politicians near the end of their careers, powerful entrepreneurs, high-profile celebrities. I am always particularly amused by the antics of those in the entertainment business. In many cases they have made their careers by adopting a radical, even subversive, stance (in popular music, film, theatre and television). But wave a gong in their direction and the transformation to gushing sycophancy is instantaneous.
Information about how the honours system works can be accessed on the UK government website (www.direct.gov.uk). Following two reports, significant changes were introduced in 2005 designed to make the system 'more open, diverse, and easy to understand'. The process is managed by the honours and appointments secretariat of the Cabinet Office. Specialist assessment sub-committees look at nominations, which may come from individuals, organisations or government departments, in particular fields (e.g. the economy, education, arts and media, science and technology). The chairs of these sub-committees are described as ‘independent’ and each sub-committee contains a majority of 'independent' members, as well as several 'officials' (normally senior civil servants). Quite a detailed process of sifting takes place before recommendations are passed to the main committee, which is chaired by the cabinet secretary.
Anyone even slightly familiar with the dark arts of government patronage will know that 'independent' members will have passed an initiation process whereby their willingness to abide by the unwritten rules of the game is put to the test. They will have to have exhibited a sufficient degree of deference to satisfy senior bureaucrats and politicians that they can be trusted to observe the conventions. Their reward for doing so is further elevation within the hierarchical system. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the list of committee members contains a fair sprinkling of lords, dames and knights. The temptation to elevate people just like themselves must be considerable.
Until recently, it was not known whether there were many people who declined awards. Following a BBC freedom of information request, which was resisted by the Cabinet Office, the information commissioner directed that the names of those who declined an honour between 1951 and 1999, and who had since died, should be released. A total of 277 people were listed. They included the painters L S Lowry and Francis Bacon, the sculptor Henry Moore and the novelist Aldous Huxley.
Reasons for declining an award are varied. Some people object to the words 'British Empire' in the title of certain awards. Others may have republican sympathies and feel that they cannot, in conscience, accept an award given in the name of the queen. Yet others may be genuinely modest and not welcome the publicity associated with the ceremony. L S Lowry is said to have turned down no fewer than five awards, explaining to friends that he would not enjoy being in the limelight. In a world where boasting is now widely promoted (in education, sport and the media), it is a delight to come across the rare and unfashionable quality of modesty.
That splendid writer J G Ballard, who turned such a penetrating eye on the shallowness of contemporary culture, declined a CBE on the grounds that he was opposed to the 'preposterous charade' of the honours system. It is alleged that a few people have declined particular awards because they hoped for something more prestigious. The writer Roald Dahl turned down a CBE in 1986, purportedly because he wanted a knighthood so that his wife would be called Lady Dahl. Accepting awards 'for the sake of the family' rather than for personal gratification is a common explanation among recipients who may feel a little uncomfortable with the process.
Labour MP Paul Flynn has proposed that the names of those who decline honours should be routinely released when this occurs (rather than some years later) and has mischievously suggested that they should be designated HRH (Has Rejected Honour). As HRH is more commonly used as an abbreviation for His or Her Royal Highness such a proposal might be regarded by royalists as verging on the treasonable. Presumably Mr Flynn is not anticipating elevation to the upper house in the near future.
If Scotland votes for independence in 2014, a continuing role for the queen is assured, thereby making it likely that the honours system will continue north of the border much in its present form. This will be a great comfort to the next generation of public and private sector aspirants, keen to continue the Scottish establishment's proud tradition of 'equality' and 'democracy'. It seems that post-independence Scotland would, in this respect at least, not differ significantly from the pre-independence version.
Walter Humes held professorships at the universities of Aberdeen, Strathclyde and West of Scotland and is now a visiting professor of education at the University of Stirling