Our dishonourable honours system

The problem isn’t just Philip Green’s knighthood, but how people like him get their baubles in the first place

The Guardian, Tuesday 14 June 2016

Ten years ago this month Philip Green had something to celebrate. The retailer, who used to be as famous for his lavish parties as he is now for his disastrous association with BHS, had just been granted a knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours. In the years that followed, Sir Philip Green – as he may not be for much longer, if a swelling chorus of MPs get their way – employed thousands of low-paid workers while spending a reputed £6m on a 60th birthday bash for 150 friends in Mexico.

Now he’s facing calls to be stripped of his “K” (as people who know how to work the honours system call it) in the middle of a high-stakes game of chicken with backbench MPs. The flamboyant retailer is threatening to refuse to appear before Wednesday’s joint session of two parliamentary committees inquiring into the failure of BHS – which he used to own – with the loss of 11,000 jobs.

In an extraordinary snub, Green has accused the Labour MP Frank Field, who chairs the joint committee, of trying to destroy his reputation, and “requires” Field to resign from the inquiry. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has launched a scathing attack on Green, joining a group of critics that is said to include several unnamed but “very angry” Tory backbenchers.

Demands for someone in public life to be stripped of a knighthood are not new. The ex-knights’ club is a motley crew of individuals who have fallen out of favour for one reason or another, the most recent example being Fred “the Shred” Goodwin, former boss of RBS. The overseas branch of the club, consisting of foreigners who have been granted and stripped of honorary knighthoods, includes some real corkers: the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, for instance, and Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Robert Mugabe didn’t just have a common-or-garden K; the Zimbabwean tyrant was a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath until 2008, which seems a little late even for the glacially slow British honours system to creak into action. There is one conspicuous absence from the lists of the ex-great and good: Sir James Savile, who was knighted on the personal insistence of Margaret Thatcher and went to his grave with his honour intact.

How the hell, you might ask, did some of these people come to be honoured in the first place? Thatcher is said to have struggled to get her mate Savile through the scrutiny process, which is entirely lacking in anything resembling accountability or transparency. People get gongs for vague things such as “services to retail”, something that appears to translate as “making lots of money”. I’m sure Ant and Dec are nice blokes but I’ve no idea why they got OBEs in the Queen’s birthday honours. Services to Saturday night?

The scrutiny process is supposed to weed out two groups: individuals who might turn out to be an embarrassment to Her Maj, and a smaller bunch of lefties who wouldn’t touch the system with a barge pole. It doesn’t seem to be very good at doing either, bearing in mind that I was once sent a letter asking if I’d like an MBE. I didn’t even need to look at the motto – “For God and the Empire” – to say no thanks.

There is something called an honours forfeiture committee, but John Major confirmed in 1994 that it has no set guidelines for cancellations. Discussions are confidential, and honours are removed only in cases that threaten to bring the system into disrepute, which rather assumes that it isn’t in disrepute already. In the absence of any democratic mechanism, the body that decides who loses their baubles is not so much this secretive committee as the press – which has the capacity to mobilise public opinion against someone like Goodwin or Green.

There is an element of ritual about these occasional hot pursuits and I’m not sure how much of a punishment they involve. If you have sufficient brass neck, and an extremely healthy bank account, losing an honour need not involve any greater inconvenience than having to order a new set of stationery. Green is so famously thin-skinned that becoming plain “Mr” again might well dent his ego, but it amounts to little more than sticking a plaster on the festering wound of the honours system.

It reached its nadir last year when the Queen officially presented her husband with an Australian knighthood, granted in a career-ending move by the then prime minister Tony Abbott, in addition to all his other titles. Arise, Sir Prince Philip? In an ethical universe, or even just a sane one, this tottering edifice would be given the final push it so richly deserves. There’s nothing wrong with governments honouring citizens who have done outstanding things, but a modern democracy doesn’t need the snobbish gradations of MBEs, knighthoods and peerages.

If we stopped giving out so many baubles just for being rich and famous, we wouldn’t need to go to so much trouble to get them back.

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