Sam Leith

The paradoxical integrity of our dodgy honours system

It is a fabulous way of separating fools from their money

The paradoxical integrity of our dodgy honours system
Prince Charles (Getty images)
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We are told that the Prince of Wales had no idea at the time that his underlings were offering to sell honours to random zillionaires. That’s lucky. Instead of being tarred by the sticky brush of corruption, then, he emerges from this minor scandal as a benign old nitwit, shovelled from one place to another by his suited aides, shaking hands and offering tea to this Russian biznizman, that Chinese philanthropist, that Saudi moneybags ('Mahfouz bin Mahfouz, Sir. Very important chap. Great benefactor.' 'Yes, jolly good. Have you come far, Mr Mahfouz?')

I’m inclined to take the denial that he knew what was going on pretty much at face value. It’s not so much, I suspect, that the royal machine cunningly sought plausible deniability: rather, that Prince Charles was the patsy in this. It’s his title and his aura of glamour they wanted, not his brains. 

Mahfouz, for instance, donated chunks of money to the Castle of Mey and Dumfries House, and the paper trail unearthed by the investigations team at the Sunday Times shows negotiations taking place between his fixers and the Prince’s. And those fixers no doubt didn’t think that they were doing anything much wrong.

What’s so entrancing about that paper trail is the style of it. A nakedly transactional relationship – you give us the dosh; we’ll fix the gong – is, in the murmuring manner of the old-school British establishment, conducted in the most unctuous of euphemisms.

A tentative donation is solicited by one: 'I will quite understand if I am knocking on an empty door.' When the Saudi fixers make clear that the money's going to dry up if a personal meeting with Charles isn’t on the agenda, a form of words is agreed: 'Should your excellency decide that you would like to go ahead with further support then I am quite sure that His Royal Highness would like to find an opportunity to thank you in person when you are back in London in the spring.' Mahfouz is 'our friend'; and 'friendship building' will 'lead to further very special personal and individual honours ... these are, at this stage, too sensitive to mention here'.

The pomposity of style doesn’t quite obscure the market-trader substance. Knowing that it might look bad if the Prince’s staff nominated Mahfouz for an honour directly, they instead put the master of Pembroke College, Oxford (another beneficiary of the Mahfouz chequebook), up to it. She has denied that she did so at the instigation of others, but let’s say that the correspondence seems to suggest (not least in that a draft of her letter was sent to Clarence House so they could check it was 'tickety-boo') that she at least had the idea of giving Mahfouz a gong at approximately the same time they did.

Those responsible may well be thinking: What’s the problem? Isn’t this what we’ve always done? Isn’t this the dignified and proper way to reward and encourage our kind overseas friends? Is the well-mannered give-and-take, the elaborate protocol, the mutual back-scratching, not how the wheels of our world are supposed to turn? Were we not benefiting the Prince and benefiting British charities, rather than feathering our own nests, by doing what we did?

Well, there’s something in that. Isn’t this, after all, what the honours system is essentially for? The idea that honours are – or even should be – some pure expression of national gratitude given disinterestedly to the most meritorious among us is a claim no less laughable than that the Olympic games are 'above politics'. That's the genius of the honours system: it is a fabulously successful and almost cost-free way of separating fools from their money. The royal family exists to sprinkle fairy-dust on British businesses and charities alike. It adds the sort of olde-worlde pomp that makes wealthy foreigners go weak at the knees, and that is Good For Britain.

Take the instance at hand. The Prince’s charities are, at least on the face of it, a good cause. So is Pembroke College, for that matter. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds flow into them – and all HRH has to do is shake hands with Mahfouz and arrange for him to acquire three essentially meaningless letters after his name. And however piously they bloviate about integrity, politicians have been bunging big donors honours since the year dot. That's not a bad way of funding our politics if you ask me. Much better, surely, to have these people swank about with the letterhead equivalent of vanity plates than to have them expect direct political influence in return.

Does it cheapen 'real' honours? Not really. Most of us, given a quick Google, won’t have too much trouble telling the difference between the MBE given to that apocryphal long-serving lollipop lady in recognition of humble service to the nation, and that bestowed on the hedge-fund spiv who always buys a table at the Tory ball. 

As for Mahfouz bin Mahfouz: who, seriously, will look at his Hon CBE and expect that it will be in return for anything other than a whole bunch of donations? I certainly can’t picture him standing on a zebra crossing holding a lollipop. The system is not only cheap and effective, then: it has the virtue of transparency.

The paradox, though, is that we have to keep pretending that honours can’t be bought. Why? Because otherwise rich people would stop wanting to buy them. Vive hypocrisy. It works.