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Leading Article: Stop selling off our honours

IT IS now more obvious than ever that when the Prevention of Abuses Act put an end to the scandal of Lloyd George's sale of honours, it simply drove the practice underground rather than eradicated it. Richard Branson has told The Independent that the last government hinted at an honour if he would chip in to the Conservative party's coffers. This is the kind of direct quo in return for quid which was always suspected of the Tories, but never proven. Scrutiny of the published Tory donations from companies showed a remarkable degree of correlation with the award of knighthoods and peerages to their bosses. Labour's much greater openness last weekend about its source of funds revealed a similar, if less strong, correlation.

There are two solutions. One would be to revert to the pre-1925 position, only to remit the funds raised to the Exchequer rather than to the Prime Minister's party. Now that the DVLC has realised that it can save public money by flogging off unusual combinations of numbers and letters, the Treasury could move in to realise the value of the long lists of Ks, OBEs, MBEs and so on, which are currently handed out free of charge. The going rate for peerages before 1925 was pounds 100,000, for baronetcies pounds 40,000 and knighthoods pounds 10,000. Gordon Brown could pay off the National Debt in no time if those were updated to today's prices.

However, that might be thought a little demeaning to the ideas of merit, not to mention honour, which are supposed to be embodied in the honours system.

The other solution would be to abolish knighthoods and rewards for political or royal service, and to give responsibility for the handing-out of honours of equal worth to an independent body. The careful gradation of imperial orders is an incentive to the worst of British snobbery: there should be a single mark of public respect - the British Medal, say. It could be awarded in the Queen's name, on condition that the monarchy give up any pretensions to political power - or "perrogative" as George V used to misspell it when complaining to Lloyd George about his policy. That way, long-serving lollipop ladies and heroic police officers could be recognised without the honours lists being clogged up with time servers and party funders.

Membership of the House of Lords, similarly, should be allocated by an independent commission - to the extent that it is not decided by the rather more exacting mechanism of democratic election.

Fifteen prime ministers after Lloyd George, the old rascal's clean-cut successor has failed to attack the corrupt honours system with his vaunted radicalism.