Sam Leith Sam Leith

The paradoxical integrity of our dodgy honours system

It is a fabulous way of separating fools from their money

Prince Charles (Getty images)

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.

Does it cheapen ‘real’ honours? Not really

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.’

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