Lesley Riddoch: It's time to dismantle honours system

Rewarding personal hairdressers and party donors has discredited the whole system, writes Lesley Riddoch

David Camerons resignation honours list includes special advisers, party donors and Cabinet ministers. Picture: Getty Images

Disenchantment. Alienation. Lack of trust. All played their part in the Brexit vote and will be massively strengthened if David Cameron is allowed to raise two fingers to democracy as he finally quits office.

Details of the former prime minister’s resignation honours were published in Sunday newspapers – leaked, one presumes, by senior civil servants who were appalled by the unsuitability of some people named. One source said: “David Cameron put forward a number of names. Some of them did not even make it past the first hurdle – the Cabinet Office. Cameron’s surviving team are having a series of difficult discussions with them to try and get through as many as possible.”

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No wonder. The British government’s website declares “the honours system recognises people who have made achievements in public life and have committed themselves to serving and helping Britain”. Does Samantha Cameron’s hairstylist really fit that description? Or two of Mr Cameron’s drivers? Or 20 of his own special advisers?

Those fit to receive a knighthood, MBE or OBE should also “have made life better for other people or be outstanding at what they do”. Kinda hard to see how the man behind the failed Remain campaign qualifies – though humble Jack Straw must be chuffed to see his son in line for a CBE after he himself failed to get a seat in the Lords because of his part in a cash-for-access scandal.

There has been a payback for businessmen who funded the Conservative Party, the Remain campaign and Better Together. Remainers Philip Hammond, Michael Fallon, David Lidington and Patrick McLoughlin are all in line for knighthoods; likewise oil businessman Ian Taylor who donated £350,000 to the Remain campaign and £500,000 to Better Together. It was Taylor’s company Vitol’s alleged links with countries including Serbia, Iran, Iraq and Libya in 2013 that caused No campaigner Paddy Ashdown to express concern about his donations. Yet Taylor is set to become a Knight of the Realm.

It makes a mockery of Cameron’s promise to reduce prime ministerial power after the 2009 MPs’ expenses scandal –and casts doubt on Theresa May’s drive to “reform capitalism” in the wake of the BHS scandal. If the new Prime Minister really wants to prove that people can’t buy or ingratiate their way into gongs and social advancement on her watch, all she has to do is veto Cameron’s proposals. She has that power.

But she won’t use it because cash for honours transactions are needed to oil the wheels of the British state. May needs a Tory majority in the House of Lords as surely as her predecessor did; her party needs big donors, and the elitist nature of top-down Britain needs a framework of rank, class and privilege to endure amidst torrents of warm empty words about equality. According to the Spectator magazine: “Such blatant cronyism makes Cameron’s legacy one of ‘favours for the boys’ [not] the progressive social change agenda he so craved.” But even though erstwhile supporters now believe Cameron’s name will conjure up only memories of patronage and preference, the show will go on.

Because Cameron is a serial offender and Cabinet Office staff are not strangers to his attempts at patronage. They’ve dealt with it twice a year since his premiership began. Try an online search for “Cameron cronyism and honours” and you’ll get almost 30,000 results. In 2015, Cameron’s general election strategist Lynton Crosby was awarded a knighthood for “political service” and new peers included businesswoman Michelle Mone, along with a former Tory minister who claimed expenses for cleaning his moat and another who accused Scots of having their “snouts in the trough”.

In 2014, Cameron’s barber got an MBE for services to hairdressing; in 2013 it was the turn of Alan Parker, a public relations chief who holidayed with the Camerons, and Apprentice star Karren Brady, who got a CBE months after introducing George Osborne at the Conservative Party conference. And so it goes on.

The idea that some of these people now have a role in passing legislation is extraordinary, but more damaging is the public’s weary acceptance of it all. Cameron has made the backhander culture surrounding honours seem normal, appropriate and completely unassailable, even though 20 years of prime ministers rewarding lackeys has degraded the currency so badly, few right-minded citizens would even want one.

A fortnight ago, Alex Salmond demanded that Andy Murray should be knighted or else Scots would conclude “supporting independence is not necessarily good for your knighthood prospects”. He continued: “Andy Murray would be the most popular Scottish knight since Sir William Wallace.”

I’d humbly suggest that’s wrong. Andy is already Scotland’s most popular son without such a title. I’d hope that the lad from Dunblane, if offered a knighthood, would refuse, demonstrating the same strength of character that led him to back support for Scottish independence, knowing there would be hell to pay for crossing the British establishment.

The former first minister’s choice of William Wallace is also problematic. Who has ever called the hero of Scotland’s Wars of Independence Sir William Wallace? To most Scots the insertion of those three letters only diminishes a man whose refusal to bend before power is the reason he became a legend. His knighthood – awarded in 1297 after triumph at the Battle of Stirling Bridge – was a Scots honour. But it still isn’t used by anyone, particularly not supporters of independence. That says a lot about the Scots’ traditionally egalitarian mindset.

So what can be done? The SNP ended the involvement of Scottish ministers in the honours nomination process back in 2007 and Jeremy Corbyn says Labour will now do the same. The Liberal Democrats cannot resist the hand that feeds – 11 are set to join Sir Vince Cable and the improbable Sir Danny Alexander with gongs. But if the Labour leader is so minded he could win SNP, Plaid Cymru and Green support by announcing his intention to scrap resignation honours and overhaul or scrap the whole archaic and devalued system.

It’s a time for party leaders to make a stand against cronyism. Will they?