Alexander Chancellor

Long life | 28 July 2016

He cannot be held responsible for bringing into disrepute an already disreputable system

Long life | 28 July 2016
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The Cabinet Office has confirmed that Sir Philip Green’s knighthood is under investigation because of his part in the destruction of BHS, which is costing 11,000 people their jobs and threatening to reduce the pensions of 20,000 others. The Honours Forfeiture Committee, which decides whether people should be deprived of any honours or titles bestowed by the Queen, is keeping Sir Philip’s case under review. Honours are usually removed from people who have been jailed for at least three months for a criminal offence or been struck off an official or professional body, the Cabinet Office explains. But it adds: ‘The committee is not restricted to these criteria, and any case can be considered where there is other evidence to suggest that the retention of an honour would bring the honours system into disrepute.’

Sir Philip has neither been in prison nor been sacked from a professional body, so the only grounds for stripping him of his knighthood could be the other one about bringing the system into disrepute. The committee is doubtless still discussing his record at BHS, which is hardly admirable. A parliamentary committee reported this week that he had spent a decade enriching himself from the retail chain and starving it of investment before selling it, full of debt, for one pound to a thrice-bankrupt who also had his ‘hands in the till’ until it sank. In the meantime, Sir Philip had taken from BHS much more money than he even needed to buy the £100 million yacht on which he was lolling about in the Mediterranean when the report was published.

All of this is very bad, and brings him personally into disrepute, but he cannot nevertheless be held responsible for bringing disrepute to a system that is disreputable already. The British honours system is an absurdity that must share much of the blame for the popular distrust from which the British establishment now suffers, for one often finds it difficult to discern whether an honour is awarded for genuine public service or for private service of a personal kind. So the disrepute of the honours system is as much to do with the original awards as with their subsequent besmirchment. Why, for example, was Philip Green ever knighted in the first place for ‘services to retail’ when his real achievement even then was just to amass enormous wealth for himself and to avoid paying tax?

But even the reviled Sir Philip is more deserving of a knighthood than some other recipients of the title that one can think of. Why was Robert Mugabe knighted in 1994? He had the title withdrawn 14 years later after violent, disputed elections in Zimbabwe, but what had he ever done to deserve it in the first place? The same can be asked about the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who had his own knighthood revoked only on the day before his execution by firing squad. This use of knighthoods to oil up to unsavoury foreign rulers perhaps reached its greatest absurdity when King George V made Benito Mussolini a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath in 1923 — a title that he was allowed to retain for 17 years until he actually joined Germany in declaring war against Britain.

Apart from all that, I can see the case for giving medals and titles to people in the armed forces and civilians who have performed important public service, but I can’t see why honours need to be bestowed on people who have simply excelled at their own chosen activities without any altruistic or patriotic purpose — sportsmen, entertainers, painters, musicians, scientists, even journalists, or people who have just made a great deal of money. And the only awards that impress the public in any way are those given to celebrities, who are usually the least deserving. Honours, it seems to me, should be confined to those who have actually done some good for others.

Then there are the peerages, which always cause controversy, as they are again causing for David Cameron over his proposed resignation honours. They are used to fill the House of Lords with political loyalists rather than to reward service; and although they replace hereditary aristocrats as the members of the upper house, they are given noble titles that make them sound like pseudo-aristocrats. This, too, must make the public perplexed and distrustful as well.