Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Honours that show the old order reasserting itself

The nation has turned away from progressive politics. The right owns government, culture and media

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Monday 02 January 2012 01:00

Next year it'll be 40 years since I landed here. London is my place, my home, and I feel a slow-growing attachment to England in particular and Britain too. I am coming to understand the nature of my country, its queer ways and deep conservatism. It changes yet never can change. Its past achievements and sense of high destiny in world matters make it special. But in modern times one finds lethargy, widespread fatalism, dull acceptance. After radical lurches towards a different and better society, Britain reverts to what it has always been – an immovably hierarchical, secretive, unequal, shady nation.

The New Year Honours list is released and fake outrage breaks out over some of the names. The ritual now is as familiar as fireworks on New Year's Eve – brief and noisy and then it's back to the couch, computer, bed or bar. Once again medals go to gentlemen who selflessly donate cash to political parties and a bit to real charities too. How can we begrudge these fine chaps their knighthoods and CBEs?

Sir Alistair Graham, previously chairman of the committee on standards in public life, warns that though the recipients gave to good causes, people might suspect otherwise and that such "unfortunate" public perceptions could "devalue" the system. How can you devalue an indefensible system?

The rows will blow over. It will be business as usual by Tuesday. This is not a slur on all those individuals who make real contributions to their communities and localities. We must honour them. The disgrace is that they have to share their glorious moments with the undeserving. Let me confess that I too was once handed a gong. I was stupid and hypocritical to accept it. It was returned when we went to war in Iraq, but that doesn't mitigate the stupidity and hypocrisy. It was all wrong. You never know about the nomination process, who decides, and you can't talk about getting an offer. It is all to keep up the mystique and draw you into a dodgy, conspiratorial club.

The political parties are known to be consummate exploiters of the honours system. The Royals are at it too, big time. They hand them out to each other like sweets – the ghastly Prince Andrew regularly gets baubles from his doting mum. And the munificence extends to men and women who indirectly ensure royal reputations and longevity. No one minds.

Helen Mirren was rewarded following her portrayal of the Queen, and now Helena Bonham Carter has a nice brooch after she played the Queen Mum so sympathetically in The King's Speech. And why, surprise, surprise, that arch royalist William Shawcross, was also thanked hugely with a shiny CVO for his hagiography of the Queen Mother, a lady with charm and also some questionable views and habits.

The old order has reasserted itself in parliament too, and insinuated itself back into the hearts of people. New surveys show the upper- class Tories in government are more trusted than Labour. Britons obviously believe that toffs know best how to keep the ship on course in stormy waters. They have been watching too many episodes of Downton Abbey, gazing back wistfully at the past when class was fixed and ensured continuity. Multi-talented and affable Julian Fellowes, the creator of this romance, is a Tory peer and generous supporter of his party. In the House of Lords some Peers are there just for the kudos, and a number used cash and influence to get in. The nation feels no shame about any of that. In other countries we call such practices "corruption". Here sleaze is just tradition.

MPs still will not accept proper scrutiny of their expenses and maintain unwholesome connections with lobbyists and interest groups. The biggest scandals evaporate faster than you can say "investigation". Anyone know what happened to Liam Fox's good friend Adam Werritty? Will we ever discover what the duo were up to in clandestine meetings with the Israelis and US neocons?

As times get harder, instead of protesting about the rich and privileged who give back as little as possible to society, Britons now blame and hate the most deprived and disadvantaged. It is all there in the latest British Attitudes survey I wrote about recently. Victorian values are back and so too Thatcherism. And right on cue here comes the compelling Meryl Streep in a new, heartstring-pulling movie about Mrs Thatcher that shows her to be a woman having to fight to make it in a man's world – mother, icon, saviour of the nation. This woman did nothing for women, used state instruments viciously against all those she decided were the enemy within, wrecked collective bonds and any bids for a fairer society, promoted greed and self-interest. Her image has been carefully guarded and nurtured and now she is back as in the hearts of voters. All is forgotten, all forgiven. Apparently a state funeral for her is already planned.

The nation turns away from progressive politics. The right owns government, culture and media, including the Blogosphere. Even the poor and wretched have given up trying. They may not have bread but, boy, in 2012 they will have the biggest circuses – with the Olympics, the Diamond Jubilee, Boris probably re-elected, honours for the cleverest tax dodgers.

Democratic socialists, republicans, feminists, anti-racists, egalitarians are in for a bad year. Stay strong comrades. Just hope our day comes. Just not yet, not for a long, long time. Perhaps never.


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