People are getting very excited this weekend about Alastair Campbell's admission that he organised a knighthood for his mate Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager. Before Campbell confirmed the story yesterday, Downing Street had even put out a fierce denial, as if we had all previously believed the honours system to be fair, impartial and impervious to political influence. Bless! I suppose it's quite sweet, the idea that everyone who gets an OBE is thoroughly deserving, selected entirely on merit and an adornment to public life. And the thought that giving gongs to the entire England rugby team would provide a feel-good moment never even crossed the Prime Minister's mind.
The honours system is so obviously a mess, devalued by awards to politicians' friends and crooks like Lord Archer, that it is impossible to take seriously. I have the impression that the former Tory cabinet minister Kenneth Clarke feels the same, for there was a certain lack of gravity, shall I say, about his evidence to the Commons Public Administration Select Committee last week. This body is earnestly investigating the honours system, as though modernising it is rocket science. Clarke told them about a chief medical officer at the Department of Health who "seemed to spend more time on the honours than anything else".
The deadly competitiveness with which civil servants, ambassadors and senior Army officers regard the business of initials explains why no government has reformed the honours system, let alone scrapped it, as Ted Heath proposed in 1970. I recently heard of a diplomat who was mortified to be offered a K, when what he coveted was a KCMG, and I have been trying to picture his dreadful social embarrassment ever since.
The real purpose of the honours system is not to give medals to what are patronisingly called "the little people" - usually represented in the tired journalistic imagination by that almost mythical exemplar of selfless devotion, the lollipop lady - but to provide the government of the day with a system of patronage. This is also the reason why the Labour Party seems to be unable, after 18 years in opposition and seven in government, to come up with a clear plan to reform the House of Lords.
Plenty of countries have a fully-elected bi-cameral system and there is no good reason why we should not have one here. The problem is an absence of political will: Tony Blair's latest climb-down confirms that he is scared of the remaining hereditaries, but he also enjoys having the power to give jobs to his cronies without subjecting them to the painful process of standing in an election. (Come on, be honest. Would you vote for Lord Birt?)
All of which leaves us with a constitutional dog's breakfast and an honours system whose unintended function is to supply hours of innocent amusement. I can't help wondering whether the monarch ever has to stifle a laugh as she exchanges polite chit-chat with some footballer best known for dating soap stars and over-consumption of alcohol. (Queen: "Did you come far? And are you still trashing hotel rooms?") What I can say, having recently turned down an honour myself, is that it is great fun to watch people's reactions. Most of my friends did not think for a moment that I would accept, and are mystified by the ease with which a Leftie republican got through the scrutiny system. (Queen: "Are you still campaigning to exile my family to an inner-city council estate?")
What I hadn't allowed for was a spasm of what I can only call gong envy, from mates who longed to turn one down themselves and an ex-lover who wondered if I couldn't nominate him instead. There are people who really, really want these things, and some of them even know the arcane gradations that make a CBE more desirable than an MBE.
This kind of snobbery is one of the best arguments for getting rid of the present arrangement and I don't mind whether it disappears altogether or is replaced by a single Order of Britain, as long as the awards are decided by an apolitical panel. The system was rotten enough before we discovered the existence of a secret Order of Alastair Campbell.
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