THE honours system has enjoyed some success in re-inventing itself as a platform for the best of British after controversies of recent years. But the latest New Year dispersal of knighthoods, obes and cbes has seen David Cameron caught up in a fresh row over cronyism.
Senior aides to the late Baroness Thatcher, long-serving MPs and Conservative Party stalwarts in the Prime Minister’s Oxfordshire heartland no doubt achieved their recognition in this year’s list on merit. The fact that West Ham vice-chairwoman and Apprentice star Karren Brady was awarded a cbe for services to entrepreneurship while she is reportedly being wooed by the Tories to stand as an mp in 2015, or run for mayor of London the following year, may only be a coincidence.
The omission of popular, well-known figures such as Andy Murray and David Beckham from the list of knighthoods has also raised eyebrows, given their achievements.
It has placed the honours system back in the firing line just a year after it seemed to be emerging as the all-embracing celebration of British achievements. Popular stars like six-time Olympic gold medal winner Chris Hoy was knighted along with Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins, plus other stars of the London 2012 Olympic Games. And David Weir was among the Paralympians honoured, with a cbe.
The stuffy old retiring civil servants and politicians may still have been there, but they were firmly thrust back into the background.
This development followed a trend in recent years which has seen serving football managers such as Alex Ferguson and the late Bobby Robson knighted, and rock stars turned into Sir Mick Jagger and Sir Paul McCartney.
We seemd to be witnessing a rebirth of the system which had threatened to fall into disrepute when a lengthy police inquiry was staged into Tony Blair’s Labour government amid allegations of “cash for honours” claims that party donors were effectively able to purchase knighthoods. This was strenuously denied by Labour and the police investigation came to nothing, but the damage was done to the public perception of how the system works.
And that is why the latest allegations of cronyism are likely to stick in the throat of David Cameron: he cannot be seen to be upholding a system of rewards for the elite, given his own privileged background and that of many of his Cabinet colleagues.
In fairness, such rows are nothing new and go back to Harold’s Wilson’s infamous Lavender List of 1976. The outgoing Labour prime minister’s list caused an outcry because many of the beneficiaries were controversial industrialists with no Labour connections – including the late financier Sir James Goldsmith.
Surely it couldn’t just be the case that we all enjoy the annual rammy over who did or didn’t get a gong, as much as the chance to celebrate the best of British?