John Humphrys: Who Should Grant the Gongs?

June 28, 2024, 12:35 PM GMT+0

Rishi Sunak will have a lot on his mind as I write – principally how does he pull off the greatest election coup since Clement Attlee hammered Winston Churchill in 1945? He will surely know that unless every pollster on the planet has taken leave of their senses, Clem’s place in the history books is secure. But Sunak’s defeat means having to deal with another little problem: whose names to include on his resignation honours list?

It is safe to assume that not every name will meet with the nation’s approval – let alone the approval of those who search in vain to find their own name in the list. It is also safe to assume that many voices will be raised demanding an end to an honours system that is widely regarded as an institution desperately in need of reform – if not abolition. Indeed some of those voices were heard just this week – and very distinguished voices they were too.

The Institute for Government, the UCL Constitution Unit and the UK Governance Project have been sufficiently alarmed by the state of the system to propose an alternative. Their message was simple: it’s time for politicians to stop doling out honours to men and women who have earned them principally by being friends and allies of the most powerful figure in the land. The prime minister no less.

Thirty-four of the nation’s great and good wrote a letter to the Times supporting the proposals and calling on the next government to restore faith in British politics by ending what they called the “revolving door between Whitehall and the big lobbying firms.” They included not only politicians but senior civil servants and even senior judges: Lord Sumption, a former justice of the Supreme Court, Sir Jonathan Jones, the former head of the government’s legal department, and Rain Newton-Smith, the director of the Confederation of British Industry. Senior political figures included Dame Margaret Hodge and Dominic Grieve.

They offered seven recommendations to stop the door revolving as well as a demand that appointments to the House of Lords be “made on merit”. At the heart of them was that prime ministers be stripped of their powers to award honours.

But it went beyond that because prime ministers have the power not only to hand out sweeties to their favourites, but also to punish them if they break the ministerial code. That, says the letter, should end. A new system should be created to manage conflicts of interest in government.

Underlying the concern of those who think the system is ripe for reform are the many surveys and opinion polls which suggest strongly that our trust in the entire political system has been falling steadily for a long time but in recent years has plummeted. Trust in politics, and in the people and institutions of public life in the UK, is at an all-time low, say the letter’s signatories: “This is a serious problem for the health of our democracy and is indicative of the need for substantial improvement in the governance of the UK. It must be urgently addressed by whichever party forms the next government. ”

One of those signatories, is Rain Newton-Smith, the director of the Confederation of British Industry. She says: “This election is a rare opportunity to reverse the spiral of declining trust in government — and it is an opportunity that would be dangerous to miss. Whoever enters No 10 on July 5 must seize it.” To which many Westminster observers of the years will say: “Fat chance!”

In theory the way the honours system works is pretty straightforward. If you wanted to recommend me for an honour (please don’t!) the procedure would be pretty straightforward. You would download the nomination form from the Gov.UK website, fill in all the obvious details and explain why you thought I was worthy of an honour. Then you would have to get letters from two other people agreeing with you and submit the whole lot either online or by post.

Your nomination would then be evaluated by an independent honours committee, who might order that further checks should be made to check that your information was reliable. If everything was in order the committee would then make their recommendation. And here’s where it becomes a little more problematic. The final stage in the process is the approval of the monarch, but the person who decides whether it ever reaches his august presence is the prime minister.

Now let’s be realistic. It’s pretty unlikely that the prime minister, let alone His Majesty, would be expected to consider the merits of a lowly British Empire Medal for a kindly old lady who’s manned the pedestrian crossing outside her local school for twenty years. Indeed, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of recommendations never get beyond a lowly civil servant. But it’s a very different matter when it comes to something that is potentially life-changing. A knighthood for instance.

At this point you might wonder why a politician needs to be involved. Sometimes rather more than merely “involved”. It is common practise for someone who might be considered by the detached observer to deserve the honour only for it be denied by the PM because of some personal animus with that person.

Is that reasonable? Is that just?

And if you have misgivings about that, let’s consider the biggest prize of all in the honours sweepstake: membership of the House of Lords. The House already has the distinction (if that’s the right word ) of being the largest upper chamber of any legislature on the planet and it may soon become bigger still.

Sir Keir Starmer is one of the many who think the very existence of such an institution is an affront to a parliamentary democracy and he says he wants to get rid of it. But there’s a problem. To abolish the Lords and replace it with a second chamber that is elected in one form or another would require the assent of – yes, you’ve guessed it – the House of Lords. And turkeys tend not to vote for Christmas.

Starmer’s other problem is that Conservatives outnumber Labour peers by more than a hundred. Prime ministers obviously don’t have the power to sack peers and the public can’t vote them out either, so if a new prime minister wants a more politically balanced House of Lords he has only one alternative: appoint more peers from his own party.

The Guardian has already named a couple of likely Labour beneficiaries: Dame Sharon White, the outgoing head of John Lewis, and Thangam Debbonaire, a former Labour MP. Anyone objecting might be reminded of Boris Johnson’s decision to give a peerage to a very rich Russian-born newspaper owner, Evgeny Lebedev, and an even richer City financier Lord Cruddas, who happened to be the treasurer of the Tory Party. It might also be pointed out that Rishi Sunak awarded a knighthood to Mohamed Mansour, an Egyptian businessman richer than the pair of them put together. He had donated £5 million to the Tories.

Let’s be clear that there’s nothing new in prime ministers dishing out gongs to those who might be undeserving simply because they’ve helped them climb the greasy pole. Cronyism has been a part of politics in British life for at least a century and probably much longer than that. Lloyd George deserves much of the credit (or, more accurately, the blame) for rewarding his benefactors. He was forced to resign in 1922 for selling peerages and knighthoods.

So where do you stand on this tricky questions of honours?

You might take a purist view that honour is its own reward. And why, you might ask, should somebody who has been well rewarded financially over the decades for doing a job that has brought satisfaction in many different ways be honoured publicly for the privilege? A famous actor or TV star or novelist or athlete for instance?

And what about politicians? Why do so many of them end up with gongs for doing a job that might have involved little more than turning up to vote in the House of Commons?

Which takes us to the House of Lords. Assuming you agree that we need some form of second chamber how should its members be chosen? By public acclaim? Or perhaps even in the same way that juries are selected?

And if we are to have honours who should have the final say? Are you happy that it’s the prime minister who makes the recommendation to the king? Are you, indeed, happy with the very concept that an unelected monarch should (even if only in theory) have the power to say yea or nay.

Or do you think we should get rid of the whole kit and caboodle?

Let us know.

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