Paul Vallely: Must honour really be a thing of the past?

We would do well to recall an age when those embarrassed by their own behaviour did the right thing before it became unavoidable

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There are principles, and then there are politics. In law we may hold to the precept that a man is innocent until proven guilty. But politics, like football, is a different matter, as the cases of Chris Huhne and John Terry show. The pair stand accused, and that is enough for them to have lost the positions of Climate Change Secretary and captain of the England football team respectively. You cannot continue in your job once a serious charge has been levelled against you. That is the modern received wisdom.

We know this is wrong. A teacher friend of mine was suspended for nine months pending a trumped-up allegation that he had hit a pupil. You hear similar stories about teachers being falsely accused by pupils with a grudge or crush on them. An accusation is enough to sully in the politics of reputation. It's more than the supposition of no smoke without fire. Nick Clegg has announced that if Huhne is exonerated he can return to the Cabinet. Perhaps so. But privately, senior Lib Dems have been saying Huhne can never be party leader now. "He is tarnished goods," said one. Even a charge appears to bring some taint.

The process by which Fred the Shred became Fred the Pleb is equally instructive. The former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland, Fred Goodwin, was stripped of his knighthood by the Queen after a recent report into the RBS collapse by the Financial Services Authority. It sharply criticised him for excessive risk-taking which forced the taxpayer to stump up £45bn to prevent the entire British banking sector collapsing. A knighthood awarded "for services to banking" was clearly unsustainable.

This is not to do with honours so much as honour. Goodwin has no right of appeal. Nor was he allowed to make representations to the Forfeiture Committee which humbled him. An honour is gratuitously given, and it can be similarly taken away. To ask whether this is fair is to miss the point. It is like asking why I should be stopped for speeding when faster cars are not. If I have broken the law that is enough and I must accept the consequences, or the Speed Awareness Course at any rate.

Yet honour does not operate like law. Indeed the very word now smacks of something archaic. It is a code from the 1950s about duty and loyalty, trust and taking responsibility, standards and self-discipline, all of them self-regulating. Of course it goes back much further than that. From Cicero to Enlightenment thinkers such as Locke, Hume and Adam Smith the idea was commonplace that people will not act in accordance with the public interest without some incentive. Concern for their honour and reputation – rooted in what Dr Johnson defined as "nobility of soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness" – was perceived as a prime motive.

Honour has, however, become degraded in our time. It held sway in feudal societies, in medieval chivalry, in cultures which herded animals, in the wild West, in criminal underworlds and gang cultures – anywhere that the rule of law did or does not reach. There it can be ruthlessly effective, but it can also be blind and cruel, as so-called honour killings testify. And it holds sway still in the Army where men's lives depend more upon friendship and bonding than on conscience or law, which is what has replaced honour in modern societies.

We still have a hollowed-out remnant of the notion of honour, which is what causes the current confusion. Later in the Enlightenment, utilitarian thinkers such as John Stuart Mill switched the dominant philosophy to a calculus which was overwhelmingly pragmatic and deeply rooted in a view of the world where economics overruled all else.

Only in a utilitarian world could a man like Harry Redknapp, the football manager on trial for cheating the public revenue, have, last week, told a jury that he had an obligation to tell the truth to the police but not to a journalist.

Football is a perfect exemplar of the way the world has changed, where too much money has corrupted the essence of what the game was once about. Life is now not about playing the game; it is about winning. The entire way we conceive of the relationship between private and public has shifted. So has the difference between how we project our character into the world and how others in that world perceive us. Social and moral status have drifted steadily apart.

Honour is entirely different from entitlement. Fred Goodwin's successor at RBS, Stephen Hester, was entitled to his £1m bonus. But his sense of honour should have told him to waive it when others are enduring such tough times. He did so in the end but too late; an honourable gesture by then looked like political calculation. Similarly, John Terry should have stepped down from the England captaincy before he was pushed, but honour long ago evaporated on Britain's football fields.

Pragmatism has overrun principle in so many areas. So Chris Huhne has to resign from the Cabinet, despite his protestations of innocence, because he needs to "avoid distraction". And John Terry's removal is presented by the FA as a footballing judgment as opposed to a moral one. The accusations of racism laid against him might impair his ability to lead and unite his team-mates or "overshadow football business" during the 2012 Euro finals.

If honour is to be effective it cannot be imposed from the outside. Reputation may be an external judgement; but honour has to be an internal one. The calculation has to be about what is morally wrong not what is socially unacceptable.

In the modern world honour has been externalised. So much so that there are now even companies which you can hire to tout an application for you to be awarded a gong in a forthcoming Honours List. That sort of honour is not a function of social or philanthropic worth; it is a manifestation of wealth and power. It is, as Tennyson might have said, an "honour stood rooted in dishonour".

This is a world in which the letter of the law is more important than its spirit. Innocence is less important than getting away with it. And a senior public servant like Ed Lester, the head of the Student Loans Company, sees nothing wrong in having his salary paid through a tax avoidance scheme to divert £40,000 a year, perfectly legally, from the tax authorities into his own pocket.

There is honour, it is said, among thieves. But that may be the only place you will find it today.

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