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MBEs or just mates? The broken state of the British honour system

By Henry Tsang

Is the honours system outdated or simply missued?

Even after the sun set on the British Empire over thirty years ago, its honours system lives on. However, these once revered honours have fallen from the peak of the colonial heyday and into rock-bottom regard in the eyes of most, who see the system as opaque and corrupt. This claim does not lie without foundation. The Conservative party have appointed 15 out of their 16 former treasurers to the House of Lords, which Transparency International calls a “catalogue of coincidence”. A system that chiefly rewards political loyalty is clearly unfit for modern purpose. 

The current system bestows acclaim and fame upon those who have arguably damaged our country. For example, Liz Truss appointed the chief Vote Leave architect, Matthew Elliot, in her resignation honours. After a disgraceful resignation and being outlasted by a lettuce, the idea that she can appoint people to rule for life is abhorrent. She has bent the conventional nature of politics to its breaking point, highlighting the flaw in relying on a leader’s goodwill.

These resignation honours also have the potential to trigger a ‘leapfrogging’ effect. This is where each successive government packs sympathetic peers every time they are in power, inflating the Lords. Although a cross-party pact has been signed to keep numbers below 600, it currently has 800 members. It reduces a crucial constitutional institution to a cigar lounge, stuffed with chums and cronies. This is highlighted by Boris Johnson appointing former advisor, Charlotte Owens, in his resignation honours as she enters as the youngest life peer. This nomination reeks of political cronyism, amid accusations of only being ‘maternity leave cover’

King Charles has popped his honours cherry with the 2023 New Year Honours. On the face of it, there are plenty of unsung heroes who should be recognised such as Louenna Hood, a nanny who raised over £100,000 to help fleeing refugees, and Lissie Harper, for her campaign on tougher sentences for those who kill emergency workers following the death of her husband.  
However, what is often ignored is the favouritism towards state servants. The Crown has, in essence, reserved the Order of St Michael and St George and the Order of the Bath for civil servants. In 1955, this sat around 40% but fell to 10% in the 2016 New Year Honours. Despite the progress in casting this outdated system aside, to most it appears they are knighted and ordained for simply clocking in on time for 40 years. It certainly helps their chances that 55 out of the 89 slots on the Honours committees that look over nominations were fellow civil servants. It is an affront to the public’s sense of justice with the Royal College of Nursing calling this perceived bias ‘clearly unjustified’. The public does not need to see any more displays of self-congratulatory backslapping for doing their job.

Those who defend the deference that the system has towards Whitehall may point towards the stagnant salaries, claiming it acts as some compensation for the unseen work that goes into running a country. However, it cannot be ignored that top-level officials such as Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, earn over £200,000 and Network Rail’s chief executive coming in at an eyewatering £760,000. There seems to be far too much political back-scratching as senior servants are routinely honoured with these titles of old for what is just, at the end of the day, doing their job. 

As it stands, the current House of Lords Appointment Commission has no teeth to put aside any appointments as it only sits as an advisory body and does not possess the legal power to veto any nomination put forward. The current honours system is too entrenched within Westminster and Whitehall for sweeping reforms, unless there is real public demand for change.

A move in the right direction would be to put an end to party-political appointments and a focus on the local heroes in the UK. The Orders exclusively reserved for public servants should be retired alongside a truly independent honours commission that would enforce this process. I believe that off the back of a one-million strong petition that demanded ex-Post Office boss, who presided over the Horizon IT scandal, Paula Vennell’s CBE to be handed back, there is an appetite for change. It must be directed before it blows away and leaves us with political apathy.


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