‘There’s nothing new under the sun,’ as my grandmother (92 and still going strong) is gnomically wont to opine. News that a committee of MPs has concluded that too many people - particularly civil servants - receive government honours ‘just for doing their jobs’ shows that the dictum retains its currency. Where have they been?
An episode of the unimprovable situation comedy Yes Minister, first broadcast in March 1981, is plotted on exactly this premise. In a cunning bid to persuade his obstructive officials to implement cuts, the minister, Jim Hacker, announces to his permanent secretary that he will no longer approve any civil service honours for anyone who hasn’t ‘done something to deserve it’.
Sir Humphrey Appleby, KCMG (which, in Whitehall vernacular, stands for ‘Kindly Call Me God’) is suitably incredulous: ‘But that’s unheard of! It’s the thin end of the wedge, a Bennite solution. Where will it end? The abolition of the monarchy!?’ Hardly. Not then, just four months before a royal wedding that gave the nation a princess from the fairytales; and not now, just after a seemingly triumphant (if damp) diamond jubilee.
The argument still resonates. Twice a year the Gazette dutifully lists the gongs awarded to solicitors and other assorted lawyers, and Whitehall mandarins invariably predominate. The latter are honoured for doing ‘what they are paid for’, in Hacker’s words. This is not in any sense to question their diligence or ability; that’s just the way it (still) works. Lawyers who take on the establishment in the interests of justice rarely appear (though perhaps they would refuse an honour anyway). And many of those lawyers honoured who are not public servants have often done something in another field entirely to earn the monarch’s approbation.
John Major’s attempt to democratise the British honours system in 1993 has, admittedly, seen more lollipop ladies and school jannies offered a modest gong for services rendered. But the debate over which gongs should be conferred on Team GB’s triumphant Olympians show how little has changed in 30 years.
Perhaps it is a contradiction in terms to ‘democratise’ an honours system anyway and Sir Humphrey is right: ‘Her Majesty’s civil servants spend their lives working for a modest wage, and at the end they retire into obscurity. Honours are a small reward for a lifetime of dedicated service to Her Majesty and to the nation.’
Whatever the committee thinks, radical reform is unlikely - if only because the present system clearly retains its seductive appeal to a very broad spectrum of the great and good. Yes Minister’s satirical successor is, of course, The Thick of It, written by Armando Ianucci. How ironic then that he should have accepted an OBE, ‘joining the establishment he claims to deride’, in the words of Alastair Campbell.
Ianucci, not a person with whom to bandy words lightly, retorted in his own defence: ‘It's probably more establishment to order your army to march into other countries for no reason.’ Ouch, that stings - though Malcolm Tucker would probably have added an expletive or two.
Paul Rogerson is Gazette editor-in-chief
Follow Paul on Twitter