Why I accepted an honour from a flawed system

Senior civil servants look after their own, and, absurdly, pass whimsical judgements on others

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The interesting revelations over the weekend about the honours system came in two parts. Pure gold was the leaking of a cabinet office document. This comprised the minutes of a meeting last October of top civil servants who made the final adjustments to the honours list before it went to the Prime Minister. It provides an unprecedented insight into a secret process. Of lesser quality were the explanatory comments by a "source", presumably the same person who sent the memorandum to a newspaper.

The interesting revelations over the weekend about the honours system came in two parts. Pure gold was the leaking of a cabinet office document. This comprised the minutes of a meeting last October of top civil servants who made the final adjustments to the honours list before it went to the Prime Minister. It provides an unprecedented insight into a secret process. Of lesser quality were the explanatory comments by a "source", presumably the same person who sent the memorandum to a newspaper.

The source stated that civil servants were expected to undertake "political searches" when checking biographical details of potential candidates to ensure they were not "anti-Blair, anti-Labour or had views which opposed the Government or the Queen". This may be so, but perhaps in reality the source was expressing an up-to-date version of an old rule. One can easily imagine that candidates were once excluded if they were notoriously anti-Thatcher or anti-Tory. And if senior civil servants didn't do this weeding, then the prime minister of the day would do it for them, or send back the list for revision. When I consider my own case, however, I doubt whether a "political" test was rigorously applied.

I was appointed a CBE in the last New Year Honours list "for services to the film industry." But I am definitely anti-Blair, having publicly expressed the wish that he should resign in shame over the Iraq disaster. And like many, I have doubted his truthfulness. To that extent I hold views which oppose the Government. And in also arguing the case for a British republic with a written constitution, as I have on many occasions, I suppose I have opposed the Queen.

Was I the lucky beneficiary of an accident of timing? For when the decisions about the 2003 New Year Honours list were being made, the Iraq war had not yet begun. In fact I cannot believe my opinions would have made any difference. For when I relinquished my role as president of the British Board of Film Classification, I was very well-treated. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, invited me into the department for a drink and thanked me in generous terms. Then followed the award. Isn't that how public service is supposed to work?

Nonetheless, the leaked memo itself displays a number of disagreeable features. Under the chairmanship of Sir Andrew Turnbull, the cabinet secretary, the committee turned its attention first to what was a priority for those around the table, though in fact it was the weakest part of the system, the more or less automatic awards given to civil servants. The cabinet secretary started the proceedings by asking if somebody should be added to the list because "he was under the impression that all previous holders of that office had been knighted". So much for merit.

Then, still thinking about themselves, the senior civil servants appear to have decided that "for future reference" second permanent secretaries would be considered for a knighthood. Is this "honours creep" subject to review by ministers or Parliament, or do civil servants award themselves whatever they think they can get away with?

The patronising tone of the memorandum, too, is unpleasant - and absurd when one considers that the quality of the people passing judgement is not exactly stratospheric. I naturally read closely the passage covering the media. I happen to be acquainted with the three people mentioned, Patricia Hodgson who is coming to the end of her job as chief executive of the Independent Television Commission, Simon Jenkins, The Times columnist and author, and Max Hastings, former editor of The Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard and a military commentator. Despite knowing their work intimately over a long period, I still wouldn't care to make the judgement, as the committee does, that Mr Jenkins is "more distinguished than either Max Hastings or Patricia Hodgson". This makes the process seem capricious.

I don't argue against an honours system of some kind. Most nations have one. It has nothing to do with being a constitutional monarchy or not. When I collected my award at Buckingham Palace on Friday, Sir Michael Jagger ("services to popular music") was standing in the queue next to Sir Alistair Horne ("services to history and Anglo-French relations"), a pleasing juxtaposition. Elsewhere there was a doctor who worked with disadvantaged children in Romania, followed a few moments later by someone who received an award for "services to beekeeping".

That is just as it should be.

But what we cannot go on with is a final sifting process in which senior civil servants look after their own and pass whimsical judgements on others.

The civil service monopoly of what is called the "honours list main committee" should be ended. The body should comprise a mixture of Whitehall and lay members. Perhaps the chair should no longer be the cabinet secretary but, to use the committee's own word, a "distinguished" outsider. And while the discussions must necessarily remain secret, the names of the members should be published along with a note of the timing of their meetings. There is no need for a lot of head-scratching. It is pretty obvious how to reform the honours system.

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