The British honours system survives within a volatile Venn diagram of overlapping and often conflicting public attitudes. These range from respect for ordinary honorees’ achievements to populist contempt for the unworthiness of a privileged few. This past few days have seen the system at its best and its worst. It was at its best when the new year honours for 2020 recognised a woman who has helped to open up sports to minority ethnic women and an Elvis-impersonator vicar who has raised thousands of pounds for charity. But it was at its worst when this year’s list yet again rewarded too many civil servants, MPs, diplomats and military officers with the most prestigious accolades simply for doing their day jobs.
The temporary online publication of the home addresses of this year’s list plays directly into this public ambivalence. This gormless accident opened up the private details of people in sensitive police and government roles to public scrutiny. It might even put their very lives at risk. It is an error for which someone should be held accountable. And yet some who were on these parts of the list, and on whose behalf the public is invited to feel indignant, will at the same time have received their gongs simply because they have done their nine-to-five stint and kept their noses clean.
Nothing exposes the contradictory nature of the national attitude to the system more than political honours. No part of the honours system is more disliked by the public. The reason for this is that no part is more partisan, and at the same time more open to abuse. The political honours system offers peerages, knighthoods and damehoods to MPs and party grandees, including donors. Many of these awards are no more and no less than corrupt patronage. No party, over the years, has been more industrial in its distribution of political honours than the Conservative party. And yet no party, over the years, has controlled the system for longer, or been re-elected to control it more frequently, including this month, than the Tories.
Giving evidence to a select committee on the honours system in 2004, the historian Prof Peter Hennessy (who is now in the House of Lords) characterised the patronage available to a prime minister through political honours as a “lubricant of the state”. The knighthood awarded to Iain Duncan Smith in the honours list for 2020 may be an example of this lubrication at work. It is 16 years since Sir Iain led the Tory party and three years since he stopped being an often controversial minister. Why give him a knighthood now? His work to introduce the universal credit system of benefit payments? His years of service as a veteran Eurosceptic? His decision to support Theresa May’s Brexit deal in the third “meaningful vote” in March 2019?
Labour has also been accused, sometimes rightly and sometimes not, of political patronage and abuse of honours. Yet the serial abusers are unquestionably the Tories. Labour ended the system of party political honours in 1966, only for the Tories to reverse the policy in 1970 and again in 1979. Tony Blair ended political honours in 1997, though he gave some for services “to parliament”, only for David Cameron to reintroduce them in full. They remain in force to this day. Mr Cameron was the first prime minister since John Major to issue a specific resignation honours list. Mrs May has now produced one of her own.
Boris Johnson’s approach has yet to be revealed. In the light of his government’s rhetorical disdain towards elites and experts, this may be one area where the militancy of the Downing Street adviser Dominic Cummings can make its mark. The most important issue here is Lords reform. But the 2004 select committee report also contains a blueprint on honours which should be revived. Its ideas include radical simplification, clearer criteria, scrapping knighthoods and damehoods, no automatic awards, an end to the word “empire” in honours, and a fully independent system to supervise all honours lists, including resignation honours. Such a system would not preclude a knighthood for Iain Duncan Smith. But he would have to take his chances along with the rest.