Justin Byam Shaw: Why do we knight civil servants, bankers and rock stars?

This corrupt system of patronage only reinforces our social structure

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The Independent Online

It won’t be a surprise to find that the list of new Knights and Dames in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List is dominated once again by the rich, the famous and the powerful. Meanwhile the thousands of ordinary people who make such an extraordinary contribution to Britain, either voluntarily or above and beyond their professional duties, will be either ignored or, in the case of the lucky few, relegated to obscure, lesser honours.

Many people think the Honours List is just a bit of fun. I know some recipients of knighthoods who dismiss them with amusement and mock-modest comments of the type: “It doesn’t mean much to me but it’s such a thrill for Lady [insert name of wife].” But the effect is much more serious. The current system institutionalises snobbery, privilege and social ranking and reinforces the obsession which our society has with wealth and fame. You might think that those who spend their adult lives urgently obsessing after money and celebrity might feel that these were their own reward. But these are egos in need of constant nourishment, as so many intrigue for further public recognition.

Knighthoods and peerages are far more likely to go to a tax-avoiding rock star, a rich banker or a political time-server, rather than to an inspirational  charity worker, say, or an outstanding nurse, policeman or teacher with a long and outstanding contribution at the bottom of the public service ladder.

Many honours go with the job. In some jobs they are virtually automatic. I don’t know Fred Goodwin and he may be a terrific bloke but I don’t think anyone would argue that his knighthood was awarded for what he achieved, rather than for who he was, that is the Chief Executive of our then largest bank.

You don’t need me to tell you about the corrosive social snobbery at play here. The highest honours are usually allocated not on the basis of what the recipient has done, but on the social status of the person in line for an honour.  A senior judge or permanent secretary will become a Knight after a well-paid, well-pensioned but utterly unexceptional career in the Courts or the civil service, whereas the inspirational Doreen Lawrence, for example, received an OBE for her 20 years of courageous campaigning since the death of her son, Stephen. Many inspirational and unpaid charity and community leaders are completely unrecognised.

James I invented baronetcies in 1611 so that he could sell them for £1,000 each to raise money to keep his troops in Ulster. There was at least  transparency and a crude honesty about this approach. Everyone knew that the honour had been bought. But today’s party donors have their knighthoods disguised and embellished with dishonest language about political or other services.

These money men have been at an unprecedented feast of riches over the past 20 years. With too few honourable exceptions, they have thrown no more than the scraps for the benefit of those whose pensions and savings have facilitated their great wealth. Let’s not pretend they have done our country a great service.

Party leaders use the Honours List to maintain their position. Of course there is some sense in sending experienced and useful people to the House of Lords while it remains an unelected House, but the carrot of a knighthood or peerage is also a time-worn way to reward or buy loyalty or to move on an ageing bed-blocker.

As others have pointed out, this corrupt system of patronage by senior politicians reinforces our social structure where everybody is encouraged to defer to and obey those just above them in the order. And the strange conspiracy of silence around the allocation of top honours is partly because there are many, many more quietly aspiring knights and dames than actual ones.

Is it any wonder that this anachronistic and regressive system of reward perseveres, when we look at the men who lead us. David Cameron, Tony Blair, George Osborne; these are men who talk the talk about the Big Society and cleaning up politics but give the impression that their every move since school has been directed towards the advancement of their own careers.

The granting of senior Honours should be an effective way of communicating the value of the unfashionable virtues of service, dedication and selflessness in a progressive society. The current system is locked in Britain’s past. It is a missed opportunity to recognise the value of great and selfless service by the modest heroes in our midst and to provide a counterweight to our reverence for wealth, fame and power.

In my view it’s simple. Only those who have given great service to the nation beyond their paid job or have shown outstanding courage should receive any honour at all. The rest demean us all.

* Justin Byam Shaw is deputy chairman of Independent Print Limited, owners of 'The Independent'