New Year Honours: It's a poor moment to award Fiona Woolf a damehood


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The Independent Online

As with comedy, so with the honours system: timing is all. Fiona Woolf may well deserve her damehood – inasmuch as anyone “deserves” an award in such a flawed, opaque system – but this year was probably not the best one to give it to her. The soon-to-be Dame Fiona Woolf tarnished her reputation by being naïve about her acquaintance with Leon Brittan when she was being considered for the chairmanship of the panel on historical child abuse: Mr, now Lord, Brittan was the Home Secretary  presented with the now-missing dossier of allegations in 1984, which he has said he passed to officials.

However good a job Fiona Woolf might have done, in the end she did not carry sufficient confidence among victim and survivor groups to continue. Rightly or wrongly, they felt she was too close to the Establishment. Now, with perfect, albeit unconscious, comic timing, we find another part of the Establishment machinery is involved in honouring her. A longer gap between the fiasco and the award of an honour would have been wise.

It is an unhappy episode, and one that highlights once again the wider problems with honours. The “people’s peerages” we heard so much about a few years ago have come to little, and the garters and gongs remain a method whereby mostly already well-off, famous and very well-paid people get a day out at Buckingham Palace and a spurious claim to rank higher in the social pecking order.

Almost half a century on since John Lennon memorably sent his MBE back to the Queen “as a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts”, we still have a hopelessly stuffy way of celebrating public service. Why not let the people vote on whom they would like to be honoured?