‘Strip him of his knighthood!’ Or life peerage, or CBE, OBE — or whatever. The cry goes up with a kind of automaticity these days, and with increasing shrillness. As I write, elements in Fleet Street are hyperventilating about Gary Barlow’s OBE. Barlow and two other members of the band Take That are reported to have avoided paying tens of millions of pounds in tax by investing in the Icebreaker Management scheme, deemed by HMRC to be a vehicle for tax avoidance.
Note ‘avoidance’. Steer clear of the word ‘evasion’ because there has been no suggestion of criminality: Mr Barlow and others in his band are threatened only with a hefty bill for unpaid tax.
And a fat lot it will do my own media profile to defend him. Every era has its pet villainies and our own appears to have selected as the moral horrors de nos jours, bankers’ bonuses, tax-dodging and sexual touching. Eighty years ago it would have been homosexuality, treason, too short a skirt, and divorce. Outrage shifts its focus, and the Guardian columnist Zoe Williams was not the first, nor will she be the last, to call for Barlow to do the decent thing and hand back his OBE.
She took care in a radio debate with me this week to allow that she didn’t personally think honours were worth having anyway; but she wants people who do think they’re worth having not to have them if they avoid tax. I do slightly wonder whether Barlow’s most heinous offence in Guardian eyes has actually been to support the Conservative party; and there is indignation among the paper’s readers that David Cameron, while condemning tax avoidance, has not endorsed the call for the singer to renounce the trinket they don’t think it worth accepting in the first place. It’s a bit like atheists demanding that a wayward priest be excommunicated.
The Barlow case does not stand alone. Various peers, variously disgraced, most prominently Jeffrey Archer, have endured calls that the Queen rescind their life peerages. Fred Goodwin and the late Jimmy Savile were stripped of their knighthoods; and I can’t quite remember — and don’t much care — where we are at present with Sir Cyril Smith.
Most of this is sanctimonious nonsense. There’s a danger we may find ourselves on the slippery slope of a highly subjective tariff of offences for which the penalty is being stripped (or called upon to strip oneself) of an honour. But it’s complicated as well as subjective. There are, after all, two variables in play here: the varying gravity of mis-behaviour which may condemn an individual to be de-gonged, and the varying value (on the honours scale) of the gong in question.
At once a question arises: are we looking for proportionality here, or inverse proportionality? Should a small offence be sufficient to deprive an individual of a small honour — a bigger offence being required to divest the individual of a bigger honour? In which case, for example, a history of repeat parking offences might threaten one’s British Empire medal, but rape, murder or (worse) using the not-actually-articulated n-word in a piece of TV footage that was not in fact broadcast, would be required to divest one of a knighthood?
Or is it the other way round, small disgraces being less, not more, acceptable in those with high honours? In that case we might demand higher standards of those who hold the higher honours, and be more forgiving of the misdoings of people who had (for instance) only received MBEs? Thus Members of the Order of the British Empire might be forgiven adulterous behaviour or irregular tax affairs, but life peers would have to walk the plank. Certainly when I was made captain of school, the headmaster told me that more exacting standards would now be required of me than of a mere sub-prefect. A drink-driving offence might destroy a judge’s but not a janitor’s career.
Zoe Williams suggested it was all basically a matter of dishonourable behaviour; but the problem with this is that not all who fall from grace do so in a public way: heaven knows how many other people in the entertainment industry have had to hand back large sums of money to HMRC, and it would seem unfair that Gary Barlow should forgo his gong just because the popular newspapers like to put him on the front page. If we are to do it Zoe’s way but equitably, I’d propose that the honoured be subjected to an annual virtue test, rather like an MOT, in which government inspectors made private enquiries into whether the honoured were behaving in a manner consonant with their status. I don’t, for instance, think a Dame should ever be seen in Lycra. I bet the Queen agrees.
No, joking apart, the more carefully we try to plot the route, the more convinced we must become that this is not a road we should start out upon, unless honours are to become a kind of licence, nullifiable by the newspapers.
There is, in fact, a line that it’s possible to draw and hold. Honours are bestowed for stated reasons: services to charity, for instance (in Barlow’s case); services to banking in Fred Goodwin’s. If after an honour has been granted it is revealed that the recipient got it under false pretences — a scientist who faked his results, for example, a banker who did no service at all to banking, a politician who disgraced politics, or a business-person who turned out to be a crook — then the honour can surely be withdrawn.
And I’d add one rider. Treachery to one’s country and therefore monarch, subsequently proved, must annul any honour at all. Anthony Blunt cannot have expected to keep his knighthood, and did not; and I think Zoe Williams and I could agree on that.
Which brings me to a final thought. Have we ever had a Dame Zoe? The appellation has a certain ring. Hold out for it, Zoe, and don’t accept anything less.