Mark Leftly: Why it isn't right to make a mere financier a knight

Tycoons set out to make a fortune and that should be their reward, instead of bestowing on them the nation's highest honour
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The Independent Online

Spot the odd one out in this rogue's gallery: Robert Mugabe, Anthony Blunt, Jimmy Savile, Fred Goodwin, Nicolae Ceausescu.

It's Savile, as he's the only one who hasn't been stripped of his knighthood. Following the overwhelming evidence that the twisted DJ was a sexual predator of emotionally vulnerable girls, there was a huge campaign for his honorific title of "Sir" to be taken away from him.

However, people were disappointed to discover a person ceases to be knighted once they are dead, meaning the grubby egotist managed to avoid just about the only punishment that could have been inflicted upon him in the grave.

Predictably, last week there were calls for former HBOS boss Sir James Crosby to join those ranks of bloodthirsty dictators, national traitors and – perhaps worst of all in a world that has lost its sense of perspective – Goodwin, in losing his title. Along with Crosby's successor, Andy Hornby, and chairman Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, the Parliamentary Banking Commission last week found that he bore "primary responsibility" for the failures that brought down HBOS and resulted in the bank being rescued by Lloyds in 2008.

Whether or not Whitehall's forfeiture committee looks at removing Crosby's knighthood is really missing the point. What seems extraordinary is the fact that Crosby and Goodwin received these honours in the first place, having apparently earned them through "services" to the financial industry and banking.

A knighthood is, according to The Official Website of the British Monarchy, supposed to be for "significant contributions to national life" which, frankly, doesn't seem to be a particularly apt description of people who simply have successful careers. Crosby was one of four businessmen knighted in 2006 and it is difficult to see why any of them earned a "K" above, say, an Andy Murray, who ended Britain's 76-year men's Grand Slam slump or even a Rob Holden, who built the Channel Tunnel rail link.

Let's look at these other sirs from the 2006 vintage. First up, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, rewarded for services to entrepreneurship. Perhaps there's an argument that he brought cheap travel to the masses by founding easyJet, but ultimately it was a project designed to make himself more money.

I'm absolutely not saying there's anything wrong in that, but it strikes me that a degree of altruism is implicit in the notion that someone deserves a knighthood. Plus, Haji-Ioannou could also be criticised for behaviour not befitting a knight of the realm in recent years, when he has spent so much time attacking the easyJet board – essentially washing its dirty linen in public.

Then there was Philip Green, whose response to being honoured for services to the retail industry was the rather bizarre "I absolutely welcome it – why not?" Well, one reason could be that his wife technically owns his Arcadia empire and she lives in Monaco – meaning that the UK misses out on hundreds of millions of pounds in tax on her dividends.

In fairness, Green has argued that the Bhs-to-Top Shop owner paid nearly £600m in corporation tax between 2002-12, but it seems odd that someone who has managed to avoid paying substantial taxes to the Crown has also been honoured by Her Majesty. He has been a big supporter of retail academies designed to get more people into the retail industry and he has employed hundreds of thousands of people, but surely a K is a stretch for what is essentially a high street tycoon acting like a high street tycoon.

The next was John Sunderland, who was then chairman at Cadbury Schweppes and rewarded for services to business. A year later plans to demerge the company's chocolate and soft drinks arms were announced, creating a streamlined Cadbury that ultimately took the fancy of Philadelphia cream cheese maker Kraft in an overseas takeover that so angered the tabloids, politicians and unions.

As a non-executive director at Barclays, Sunderland has also defended the egregious bonuses that were handed to Bob Diamond when he was the chief executive at the bank. Even forgetting what followed – and allowing for the arguments that the businesses were probably improved by the demerger and that he left Cadbury before Kraft's takeover – it's hard to see what Sunderland did that was so out-of-the-ordinary in the world of big business.

All there seemed to be was the loyalty of staying at the same business for 40 years, which is commendable but should surely be recognised by a gold clock rather than the nation's highest honour.

And that brings us back to Crosby. Let's ignore the disasters of the financial crisis and try and work out why in 2005-06 it was felt that he was a prime candidate for a K. The stand-out achievement of his CV was that he had masterminded Halifax's £30bn merger with Bank of Scotland and became the combined group's first chief executive in 2001.

He did serve the country as a non-executive director at the Financial Services Authority, the City watchdog that has just been broken up. However, this appointment in 2004 was controversial as he was still in charge of HBOS, meaning it could easily be argued there was a conflict of interest.

The knighthoods here appear to be more to do with being successful, not necessarily the same thing as making a significant contribution to national life. Rewarding businessmen and women with such honours seems odd because they are effectively being rewarded for creating their own wealth.

While impressive and maybe even admirable in a capitalist society, these knighthoods are surely not warranted. Business, by its nature, is there to make money: it is implicitly self-serving and the dough is the perfectly natural, most fitting and only deserving reward for those who do well in the tough world of industry and commerce.

No one can blame these four and any other business leaders for accepting a knighthood. In that context, Green's "Why not?" response makes sense. But the Queen might want a quick word with the honours committee to sort out their selection criteria when it comes to big business.