Jon Snow: Medals that lost their lustre

Plenty of deserving recipients will appear on this week's New Year honours list. But there will also be awards that have been bought, bribed or are just plain inexplicable. Reform of the system is long overdue, says an OBE refusenik

Sunday 28 December 2003 01:00

The honours system has been a New Labour accident waiting to happen. Amid all the euphoria and hope for change and renewal conjured by the election victory in 1997, actually reforming the way honours were awarded has never been on Tony Blair's horizon. In these matters at least he is a Wilsonian pragmatist. Before he came into government, I was present at a discussion with him about honours in general, and the peerage in particular. He sat quite silently at the table, listening, but contributing nothing. But he made it plain in his demeanour that beyond the disposal of hereditary peers, he was not for change. Curiously, I was at another gathering a week later, and he came across to me and said, "You know, I am a radical," as if our unrewarding discourse about honours had marked him as a reactionary.

It is not what was said about Professor Colin Blakemore's fitness for a knighthood that is surprising, it is the fact that we ever found out. Last year I and a team from Channel Four spent six months making a documentary, Secrets of the Honours System. Having been offered an OBE in 2000, and turned it down at the very least because I was a working journalist, I was motivated to find out more about how the whole thing worked. We were never able to talk to anyone involved in the process, and got only some of the way to understanding the opaque and murky honours process, by talking to people who'd intersected with it in the past.

The leak of the Blakemore knighthood farrago, with the list of "refuseniks", has to have come from the very heart of 2 Monck Street where the honours secretariat is located in Westminster. So secretive is the system that it may never be possible to prove or disprove the claim, denied by Clarence House, that it was Prince Charles who intervened to prevent Professor Blakemore, the respected head of the Medical Research Council, from getting his gong.

Charles has a direct line to Number 10, and one of the few certainties that emerged from our research is that Tony Blair retained a formidable power in the tinkering with who gets what in the honour list. Lord Robin Butler no less, himself the former master of the list from his position as Cabinet Secretary, told me: "The PM is no cypher in this matter, he still wields enormous patronage ... whether he chooses to utilise it or not ... to remove or to bring into play names on the list."

As to what the leaked memo says of what was said about Professor Blakemore's "controversial" work on animals, that too is consistent with our findings. Sir Peter Baldwin, a former senior civil servant at the Department of Transport, told us that he and his departmental honours committee spent hours debating the virtues of "A" against "B" or "C", adding: "We couldn't possibly make such discussions public."

Sir Peter, Lord Butler, and other senior civil servants of their time have played, and continue to play, the dominant role in the exercise of the honours system. Much of their time is spent second-guessing what their political masters would want. Hence one can see that a diligent civil servant, conscious of New Labour's debt to the animal rights movement (£1m donation at the 1997 general election) might perceive that if one of only 40 knighthoods were to go to a vivisectionist, it could prove a red rag to a bull. The irony here is that Professor Blakemore is himself on that august panel of scientists which advises the Permanent Secretary on the make-up of the science list in the New Year honours.

Civil servants themselves, as a class, are still the principle beneficiaries. In the 2002 list, five times as many civil servants as teachers received honours. And if the rest were anything to judge the system by, there were three times as many businessmen as policemen; there were 24 arms trade recipients; and none at all from any charity working with the victims of war.

So in the midst of the current furore how is the system to be sorted out? Why naturally enough Sir Hayden Phillips, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Constitutional Affairs, has been asked to step forward to do the job. He's a civil servant's civil servant, charming, loyal, one step ahead of the minister, and reportedly as seamlessly in thrall to Lord Chancellor Charlie as he was before to Lord Chancellor Derry. Along the way he has picked up a knighthood himself.

Hence restoring confidence in the honours system has been vested in the hands of someone who is not only himself a beneficiary, but who was already in all but name organising the very list from which Professor Blakemore was excluded in such disgraceful circumstances.

Let us not pretend then that we are in for the kind of root and branch reform that MPs on the Public Administration Select Committee are currently exploring. This has all the hallmarks of a classic honours fudge. Some processes will be opened up, some names on committees changed, but widespread reform, including Benjamin Zephaniah's call for getting the empire out of it all, Sir Hayden will not be recommending.

Gus John, the Afro-Caribbean former Director of Education for Hackney, explained to me what it felt like for him to be approached with the offer of being appointed CBE. "I regard [the title] Commander of the British Empire as part of the iconography of British imperialism," he said. Mr John told me he felt it would have been a pretty serious dishonour to have to wander the planet as a commander of the very institution whose legacy he had tried so hard to mitigate. It may be that in the early 21st century the honours system has finally failed to respond to the people that we have become. We are less deferential, less hierarchical, so that a peerage, a knighthood - a CBE, OBE or MBE - is rapidly becoming a matter for confusion and curiosity, rather than celebration.

A couple of weeks ago President Bush gave Lord George Robertson the rare honour of a US Presidential Medal for his work at Nato. Many felt it a rather more deserved honour than the absurd lordship with which he was inflicted before even taking up his role.

Thursday's list of honours will be full of deserving recipients, but our research indicates it will be dotted about with some that have been bought, others that are bribes in some form, and still others that are simply inexplicable.

John Major told us that he'd made the system more open and less "Buggins's turn". It didn't happen. Buggins still dominates the civil service list on the basis that it's part of the remuneration for people who would otherwise have gone off into private business.

Yet anyone competing in the Foreign Office exams this year will know to their cost that there were hundreds of applicants for every place awarded. It doesn't sound as if pay was an issue there, so can it be that they all want a knighthood?

There is a lurking danger that unless a more egalitarian, streamlined system is introduced "Sir", "Dame", "Commander'" and the rest will fast complete the journey to ridicule. More seriously our desire, as in any society, to pay due respect to those that we really honour, will be denied us.

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