I've changed my mind about honours

If honours included, as well as "for services to education" the formula "for being rich", it would liven things up no end

The honours system is a source of almost limitless controversy, and always has been. Queen Victoria found it a very useful way to insult Gladstone at the end, telling him as he left office for the last time that she would have offered him a peerage, but she knew he wouldn't accept it. Lloyd George openly sold honours. The present Queen offered a dukedom to Winston Churchill on the understanding that he would refuse it (he almost changed his mind at the last minute, throwing the players in the whole elaborate charade into a state of panic).

Harold Wilson used the system in ways both populist and nepotistic, from the first pop music awards in the shape of the Beatles' MBEs to the notorious Lavender List. He has been much reviled on these grounds, but by such stunts as getting the Queen to knight Francis Chichester on the dock at Plymouth with Raleigh's sword, he encouraged subsequent Prime Ministers to think in showy terms.

John Major opened up the system for direct nominations and tried to do away with the automatic nature of parts of the system. More recent controversy has focused on the imperial history of the awards, and Benjamin Zephaniah let it be known that he refused an Order of the British Empire for fairly obvious reasons. (A committee subsequently recommended that the name be changed to Order of British Excellence - something you frankly wouldn't want to be awarded, unless you were, say, a kettle).

This year's list shows a general continuation of Blairite tendencies. Most conspicuous is an amazing showing in the Ks for popular sporting heroes. I'm rather thrilled by the idea of Sir Matthew Pinsent, but previous generations would have been astonished by this and the Chaucerian-sounding Dame Kelly Holmes. Footballers, on the other hand, are passed over in silence, although Sir David Beckham might be a popular gesture - I expect everyone thinks that they ought to be happy with all that money.

Despite Mr Major's best efforts, the honours system is still surrounded by a certain degree of mystery, sometimes for very good reasons. For instance, the membership of the committees which make recommendations is a deep secret, understandably - I mean, imagine the bullies and bores who would lay siege to you if they knew you were on one of these committees. What we do know is that the committees cover various aspects of national life; Agriculture, Commerce and Industry, "Maecenas" (which covers the arts and humanities), Media, Medicine, Local Services, Science and Technology, Sport, and State Services.

The origins of these committees is "lost in the mists of time", the Government says, though that can hardly be true of the Media committee, at least. They are in possession of different proportions of the list as a whole, and of different awards, without corresponding distribution. So the committee for local service gives away 55 per cent of all awards, but only 31 per cent of knight- and damehoods. "Maecenas", on the other hand, gives away as many as 19 per cent of all Ks, from an allocation of 5 per cent of all awards, although, as this list shows, these proportions vary from list to list.

From these proportions, some apparently odd imbalances seem to arise. Civil servants just get them automatically, at a certain level, which I don't think we should complain about, given what they have to put up with. MPs, on the other hand, now only exceptionally get them - it used to be routine for the non-achievers, and held out by the Whips in front of the recalcitrant. This list is a dismal showing for culture, not handing out any Ks for creative artists, but it may be a one-off. It certainly sometimes seems as if you have to be a seriously undistinguished female opera singer not to end up with a DBE. Actors and playwrights always do very well; artists and composers reasonably so.

Writers get them late in their career, if at all, and recently honours have been going mainly to popular writers such as Jilly Cooper. There is, however, a strong feeling among some writers against accepting honours, which may be something to do with precedent. If an English composer can happily accept a knighthood because Elgar had one, an English novelist may feel awkward about taking something which Dickens never had. Two per cent of awards are refused every year, some through principle, some through egotistic outrage, like Dusty Springfield turning down an OBE because "that's what they give to cleaners"; a leaked memo last year suggests that many of these refusals come from writers.

What one might question is the old-fashioned concept of service worth honouring. Where the honours list has been expanded, it has stuck to a fairly narrow notion of public good. No one would quibble with the recent tendency to give knighthoods to successful headmasters. It's admirable that there seems to be a less rigid sense of class distinction. But there seems an obvious way in which the honours system can usefully expand.

Commerce and finance have an uneasy relationship with the honours system. The source of the uneasiness, of course, is that nervousness about any explicit relationship between wealth and honour which has prevailed since Lloyd George. On an impressionistic level, one would say that the chairman of a company which creates large numbers of jobs in the service or manufacturing industry may well be considered for a significant honour, but probably not his subordinates. I would guess, however, that you would be very unlikely to get any kind of honour if you just made a lot of money in the City.

Should we not stop being squeamish about this? After all, the Government has said that it thinks wealth ought to be encouraged and admired. What better way than showering honours on derivatives brokers? Why not make it clear that your service to the country may come in the form of years drudging away in the Treasury, or in running jolly fast, in hitting that top C in Tristan at Bayreuth or just being ever so rich? One would have to try quite hard to be rich in this country without indirectly benefiting a lot of other people. If honours citations included, as well as "for services to education" the formula "for being rich", it would liven things up no end.

I'm perfectly serious about this. So long as no bribery is involved, it wasn't inherited, and the money was made legally, there should be a sliding scale. If you have £10m, say, you get an OBE; £25m for a CBE; £50m, and a knighthood automatically follows. Earn £5m in a year, and you get a telegram from the Queen. Why not? Only a prig would think his hard-earned charity-based CBE is any way devalued by the proximity.

To be honest, I've rather changed my mind about the honours system over the years. I used to think it a complete absurdity which anyone of principle ought to avoid. Now, I have to say, I rather love it. It gives harmless pleasure to many people; not just the recipients, but to the acquaintanceship of everyone on the list. I love it when an acquaintance gets something, particularly if it seems unlikely. Of course, one regrets the fact that it sometimes gets it wrong, in the case of Dusty Springfield or Benjamin Zephaniah.

But who would want to lose that twice-yearly appearance of the list, the amused chuckle at the discovery that - crikey - Alan Whicker can now call himself the Commander of something nebulous in the long-disappeared British Empire?