Resignation honours from former prime ministers is a discredited privilege which must end - Euan McColm

My enthusiasm for defending the honours system grows weaker by the minute

It’s never been easy defending the UK honours system.

For many, the whole shebang’s an anachronism, a throwback to a different time with all the problems that can bring. When the late poet Benjamin Zephaniah - son of a Barbadian father and a Jamaican mother - was offered an OBE in 2003 and turned it down saying the very word “empire” was a reminder of slavery, his decision was perfectly understandable. Zephaniah’s rejection of an honour didn’t diminish his significance as a British cultural figure. He didn’t need a gong in order to confirm his importance as an artist.

However, despite valid arguments to the contrary, I believe the idea of a system which rewards the contributions to society of British citizens is a sound one.

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Why shouldn’t the efforts of charity workers be celebrated? Why wouldn’t we wish to mark the achievements of pioneers in the arts and science? Who would argue that, after the joy he brought to the nation, Andy Murray didn’t deserve that knighthood?

But making the case in favour of honours is getting more difficult.

The resignation honours list of former Prime Minister Liz Truss - published at the weekend - is almost entirely comprised of ammunition for those who’d scrap the whole damned thing.

Truss, an utterly discredited politician whose 49-day premiership was notable for the way in which her fiscal policies threw the UK economy into chaos, used her power to nominate people for for honours to send cronies to the House of Lords. Tory donor Jon Moynihan, Matthew Elliott - former chair of the pro-Brexit Vote Leave campaign - and ex aide Ruth Porter were all made peers, despite there being no sign that any of them might make competent legislators.

Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke, who you may know for his key role in Truss’s Tory leadership campaign, received a knighthood, while the former PM’s mate Jackie Doyle-Price MP was made a Dame.

My enthusiasm for defending the honours system grows weaker by the minute.

There had been considerable pressure on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to block Truss’s list. In the end, he preferred keeping his party’s crank-right happy to protecting the integrity of the honours system.

Prime Ministers are not obliged to dole out resignation honours. It is a right rather than an obligation. Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, has let it be known that, should he win the next election and lead the next UK Government, he will not publish a resignation honours list.

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This is both smart knock-about politics and good for the health of our democracy. In the short term, Starmer gets to show us - through his position on controversial issue - how he differs from the Tories now in power. In the longer term, he opens up space for a new discussion on how the honours system could work.

That anyone should be sent to the House of Lords, there to pass laws, because they’ve donated a wheen of cash to the party of government is an outrage.

When Rishi Sunak deservedly loses the next General Election, he will undoubtedly produce his own honours list. Let’s hope that’s the last time a Prime Minister exercises this discredited privilege.



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