Andrew Gimson

Honour bound

Andrew Gimson says that the leaked honours memo reveals the establishment in all its glorious timidity and conformity

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The inanity of minuting these conversations! The madness of putting on paper derogatory remarks about such very distinguished people! These were among the chief exclamations made at the Christmas party held by the Department of Constitutional Affairs, where much of the conversation concerned the leak of a paper in which the merits and demerits of 38 candidates for honours were ruled upon with extraordinary frankness by a committee of top civil servants, including the great Sir Hayden Phillips (profiled in this magazine on 16 August).

People's reputations were assessed in this Cabinet Office paper, which was meant to remain secret for ever, in a wonderfully dismissive way, as if they were being considered for membership of an old and self-satisfied London club with a very long waiting list, which in a way they were. It was noted that John Taylor was 'very promising when he moved from Hewlett-Packard, but that promise had not been altogether fulfilled' in his role as director-general of UK research councils, while Christopher Allsopp, an economist who served on the Bank of England's monetary policy committee, was 'not thought to be a strong candidate', for his work 'was of questionable quality'. Professor Colin Blakemore's 'controversial work on vivisection' meant he could not be given an honour now, though some hope was held out that 'his reputation might be improved' in his new job at the Medical Research Council. In sport, 'the committee noted that all of the OBE candidates were over 50', and decided, in a much-mocked phrase, that the tennis player Tim Henman 'should be taken now to add interest to the list'.

Seldom has the modern British establishment been so well exposed in all its glorious timidity and conformity. But the most riveting remarks, from Grub Street's point of view, were found in the section devoted to the media, where the committee in its wisdom ruled:

It was agreed that of the two potential K/D [Knight/Dame] candidates, Patricia Hodgson [chief executive of the Independent Television Council] was the stronger and should be taken. The Committee also decided it was time for Jenkins to be taken. He was considered to be more distinguished than either Max Hastings or Hodgson and the appropriate level must be Kt [Knight].

Jenkins is Simon Jenkins, who edited the Times and the Evening Standard, while Sir Max Hastings, who was awarded a knighthood a year and a half ago, edited the Telegraph and the Evening Standard. Many people who know both men have protested that they find it quite impossible to say which of the two is more distinguished. Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator, said, 'I think they're both extremely distinguished men, but Max has the inalienable distinction of having given me a very good job when I was 23.'

Boris's predecessor as editor, Frank Johnson, commented, 'The point is that Max Hastings has supported the re-election of Tony Blair. End of story. Thatcher's and Blair's honours to journalists are the most politicised since Lloyd George. Not that I begrudge Max his gong. I think that everyone in this life who manifestly craves a gong as much as Max did should have one.'

Frank says that if he was offered a gong, 'I should accept unhesitatingly'. But he also takes the bracing view that there is 'no damned merit', not just, as Lord Melbourne said, in the Order of the Garter, but in all honours. This is a pleasantly traditional line, and is one of the few ways in which recipients of honours can hope to remain modest. Soldiers decorated in the second world war generally avoid describing what feats of arms they performed by remarking that the medals 'came up with the rations'.

As soon as one starts to regard honours as a serious and exactly calibrated measure of merit, instead of as an amusing but essentially arbitrary form of decoration, one is on the road to perdition. It would be absurd to change the present system of awarding them ' to throw out Sir Hayden and his chums ' for no other committee could be expected to do better than they do, and any committee which pretended to be 'democratic' and 'transparent' would almost certainly do much, much worse. As a likely recipient of one of the honours to be published this New Year said, on being asked what kind of distinction might deserve such recognition, 'I don't know. Anything I could say would sound ludicrous. You are as aware as I am of the absurdity of this business, and clearly anyone confronted by a prize of this sort, well, it's something of a toss-up whether to accept, but it seems rather churlish to say no.'

Sir Harold Nicolson said much the same on being offered a knighthood in 1952 after the publication of his life of King George V: 'To maintain my objections might be considered churlish and embarrassing.' But according to his diary, he derived no pleasure from being made a Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order:

Why is it that I hate so much being congratulated on my KCVO? Partly natural shyness. Partly because it is embarrassing to express pleasure about something one loathes. And partly a conceited feeling that after all the work I have done in life, a knighthood is a pitiful business, putting me in the third eleven.... I feel as if I had got a fourth prize in scripture when I should have liked the Newcastle [Senior Classics Prize at Eton].

Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, who received his knighthood in 1991, expressed no such discontent: 'I think the honours system chooses very good people. I don't think I have any complaints.' On further reflection, Sir Peregrine said it was 'absolutely ludicrous that columnists should get honours ' our whole life is devoted to drawing attention to ourselves'. He argued that the real point of the honours system is to recognise people who do valuable but unsung work. Members of the public are nowadays allowed to nominate candidates for honours, and Sir Peregrine tried to nominate Peter Vansittart, 'a dedicated literary figure since the late 1930s who has produced 50 books ' he's never tried to be popular, but he has pegged away and has done distinguished work'. But the bureaucracy involved in recommending someone is, according to Sir Peregrine, so tiresome that 'you immediately regret getting involved ' I didn't complete the task'.

Young men tend to be contemptuous of honours, while old men often end up accepting them. The establishment flatters them into becoming pillars of it in the end. As a young man in the 1890s, almost half a century before he himself accepted a knighthood, Max Beerbohm claimed, 'At present, there is no class more covetous of knighthood than that new class of writers which has come in on the wave of popular education.' He instanced Mr Flimflam, a popular novelist who is continually in search of publicity:

After his lecturing-tour through the States, he must be off either to Venice, of which he is very fond, for a well-earned rest, or to Stoke Poges, in order that he may put the finishing touches to his new mediaeval novel, in which (it is an open secret) he love of Dante for Beatrice will be treated in a new and startling manner, though with all that reverence and wealth of local colour for which Mr Flimflam's name is guarantee. Interviewed (or his name is not Flimflam) he must perpetually be, and for every interview he must be specially photographed with his favourite pipe.... It matters not what title he receive, so it be one which will perish, like his twaddle, with him.