Rolf Harris receiving his OBE, 1977. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Is it time for the honours system to go?

From the questionable calibre of candidates to clandestine cancellations, Michael Collins queries the future of this (not so) honourable tradition

Artillery Row

In the past it was very clear what crimes and misdemeanours could lead to beneficiaries of the British honours system being stripped of their titles, orders and awards. Treachery was high on the agenda. Sex was a contender if it took you into liaisons with the wrong company; being exposed as a gay spy was inevitably an issue, but so was sleeping with a woman who was sleeping with a Russian. Philby, Blunt and Profumo may therefore be among the most famous names to have forfeited these honours, but they are not necessarily the most ignominious. These establishment figures were synonymous with the class and pedigree that has dominated the honours system throughout the 600 years of its existence.

As with many an archaic tradition or institution there is currently a rush to catch up with the zeitgeist

This is one of the major criticisms that’s aided public scepticism of the system, but others have come up on the outside. The gestural efforts to extend the criteria for these awards to wider society began with the introduction of the OBE in 1917; there were further shifts towards social inclusivity in the 1960s and 1990s, with ‘non-state servants’ now nominees. This century, prime ministers have been quick to act more earnestly on this. Tony Blair was keen to award those working in education and health, while David Cameron awarded exemplars of his cherished ‘Big Society’ mantra. But equally, the charges of cronyism have been levelled at recommendations of prime minsters when it came to their chosen list of recipients at New Year or on the Queen’s birthday. Major party donors do well, as do those that have already received generous remunerations for their role in public office.

All this before you get to the questionable calibre of the celebrities and sports men and women that are forever in the running. As with many an archaic tradition or institution there is currently a rush to catch up with the zeitgeist, at least the zeitgeist as championed by the king mob that springs into action via social media, and the similar mindset evident elsewhere. Clearly tokenism and quota systems have crept in here to accommodate so-called diversity and duck charges of racism, and the threats that follow. This itself is creating a new form of privilege where ethnic minority status trumps merit, but it has a long way to go before it supplants an antiquated one based on class and breeding. Merit of course is said to justify the continued support of an awards system which honours those that make significant or gallant contributions to local communities, or wider society.  Detractors point out that merit isn’t solely the priority here and never has been.

Those putting the case for the defence argue that the system encourages public service, and has the weight of historic tradition behind it. So has the House of Lords and the monarchy, but why should tradition alone be enough to keep such anachronistic institutions and systems alive? That’s the view of those of us that would regard ourselves more as radical traditionalists than traditional radicals. Largely we believe in simply throwing out the bath water, but there are occasions when the baby has to go too.

Criticisms of the honours system have increased this last decade; further issues have highlighted its irrelevance and made it a subject for debate. The Times in particular has form on this. It has run stories that address these charges of cronyism among other criticisms. A recent investigation by the newspaper, however, has revealed a new development. The findings suggest a clandestine cancel culture operating behind the scenes, where the reasons for honours being stripped are not being divulged to the public, or at least are not elaborated upon.

Criticisms of the honours system have increased this last decade; further issues have highlighted its irrelevance and made it a subject for debate

The number that have forfeited awards is greater than at any time since the war, although that high season of scandal the 1950s had its fair share. Last year nine people had their honours revoked, making the figure an anomalous 70 in a decade. When it comes to high profile figures such as Harvey Weinstein and Rolf Harris we know the info and the ammo; the whys and the wherefores. Sex offences are the leading reason for the removal of titles and awards now, with fraud running a not so close second. The report highlights the problem with this lack of transparency, as the clandestine approach means these figures are less accountable to the public when the crimes and misdemeanours are not revealed. Although this could also mean that not all those subjected to cancellation have been found guilty as charged. These awards could be forfeited as a response to unsubstantiated charges from the mob, which would mean the simple accusation of racism would be enough, as evidence, context and motivation are now irrelevant when it comes to that particular accusation.

Just as the criteria for those that benefit from the awards can be nebulous, so it is for those that are forced to forfeit the awards, although the obligatory parliamentary committees are in place in an attempt to correct this.  Each process requires greater transparency. With it being increasingly unclear as to who is truly worthy of receiving these honours, and who should have them revoked for dragging the system into disrepute, this might be the perfect moment for a discussion on whether the honours system itself should go, as so much of its credibility already has. It may be a tradition, but it’s no longer necessarily an honourable one. If it ever truly was.

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