Sir Tony Blair’? How cheaply knighthoods come in our broken honours system

Above: All the Prime Minister’s Men. Tony Blair passing through Portcullis House at Westminster on the day he resigned from office.. ‘Plenty of people did not think much of Thatcher, but no howl greeted her garter.’ Photograph: Bill Heaney, The Democrat

Tony Blair being interviewed by Democrat editor Bill Heaney when he launched his campaign for the Labour leadership in Allied Distillers, Dumbarton, back in 1997.

 Simon Jenkins in The Guardian

On paper the reason for the garter, not a normal knighthood, is that Blair was once prime minister and all former holders of that office get one, as they once got earldoms. James Callaghan did, as did Margaret Thatcher. The difference is that Blair’s honour has been delayed for 15 years. The palace might argue that there are only three vacancies in the 24-strong companionship and there are four ex-prime ministers waiting, along with other worthy candidates.

That does not explain the delay in Blair’s case. In the light of history, Blair was not a peculiarly bad prime minister. In winning three general elections he might even be rated a success. The two wars into which he led his nation, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were heavily supported by some at the time. But the charge against him, as confirmed by the Chilcot report, is that he woefully misled parliament and the public in stating his case.

Hundreds of Britons and tens of thousands of foreigners died – and are still dying – as a result of Britain’s participation in those wars. Plenty of people did not think much of Thatcher, who also went to war, but no howl greeted her garter.

The Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has suggested that all ex-prime ministers should be knighted on leaving office, simply for having done “one of the toughest jobs in the world”. Like permanent secretaries, senior judges and (most) Commons Speakers, they deserve a farewell pat on the back, and a knighthood comes cheap. To this extent, Blair would be entitled to his reward. But, in that case, someone should have said so and done it.

As it is, the delay over Blair looks like a deliberate judgment somewhere in Buckingham Palace. Were some courtiers muttering, “Must we really, what with Iraq and all that?” Were others saying, “It’s over, just get on with it”? As for numbers, they might hope that with a bit of luck, next-in-line Gordon Brown will refuse, and David Cameron can be dumped in the Lords, where his recent misdeeds will vanish in its mire of sleaze. In other words, the delay in the award to Blair could indeed be a royal comment on his botched job – at which point we should best treat it as matter closed.

More evidence, if it were needed, that our entire “honours” system and its associated nomenclature is an outdated mess. Britain has inherited an honours system that, like its Church of England and parliament itself, is shrouded in past fashion and fancy language that it seems incapable of reforming. Honours are divided between people who get them through their job, people who merit them and people who buy them. The cynicism of Boris Johnson’s (and Cameron’s) purchased honours has brought the House of Lords to a new low. I can think of no other democracy where membership of its parliament is so brazenly up for sale.

It is not good enough to say it does not matter much. If it is to serve as the nation’s comment on the performance of public figures, a system of honours should convey meaning, not time-serving.

In a climate of sleaze and corruption, the case is overwhelming for a commission to clean up and modernise the hierarchy of national awards. Parliament, politics and Downing Street should have nothing to do with it. We can eliminate archaic references to empires, saints, baths, garters and chivalry. We can stick to orders of merit.

As for prime ministers, their reward is best kept in heaven, or at least confined to the lucrative lecture circuit and memoir catalogue. It is there that the nation can best express its appreciation of their work.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

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