In days of old, when knights were bold and toilets weren’t invented, they dug a hole beside a wall and sat there, quite contented. The concept of titled gents having to do just as mere mortals tickled my ten-year old self. Having been born in the same year as the Life Peerages Act there were still plenty of hereditary peers about and anybody with a title was regarded as most definitely a higher rank of human being. In my father’s memory local workers would still tip their cap to the local squire.
My best friend’s father was awarded a CBE and I was once granted sight of the certificate, proudly framed but hanging in a non-prominent place; he was a modest man, but the document proclaimed that he had given long and noble service, in what cause I can’t remember. I do remember being deeply impressed and wondering whether this meant he was on speaking terms with the Queen. He was one of the ‘little people’ put forward by others and considered for the award by the honours committee.
Inspirational school teachers with fifty years’ service, selfless charity workers, volunteers who risked their lives in lifeboats; these people are given lesser honours that come with no title or grant and are seen as recognition for remarkable service to others. The unsung heroes, the types who roll up their sleeves and get on with it and suddenly discover that their whole lives have been devoted to the greater good. There is something quintessentially British about that visit to Buckingham Palace and the bestowing of what we modestly refer to as a gong.
But climb to higher rungs on the honours system and a different story emerges. As well as some universally approved recipients there is bewildering history of apparently strange choices; mediocre entertainers honoured while lifelong popular troupers ignored, athletes who have already earned other, shinier medals on the track and a long, long list of faceless civil servants who have simply done their jobs and with no great distinction. Every year the public ask who and why, when the list is published. And if him, why not her? The logic seems impenetrable. But then we get to the more cynical heights of pure cronyism; some would go so far as to label it corruption, and it isn’t even a recent phenomenon.
So blatant was Lloyd George’s industrial-grade sale of honours that he created the original press baron by ennobling the shyster Max Aitken – yes, ancestor to ‘Jailbird’ Aitken – as the first Baron Beaverbrook. If LG hoped to keep his corrupt auction of titles from the general notice of the public he paid a high price, indebting the government to the discretion of a fickle opportunist who seems to have made something of a hobby out of purchasing influence in Westminster. In his brief stint as the first Minister for Information towards the end of the Great War Aitken became uniquely positioned to wield that influence.
Hello. Who the fuck are you?
But at least he had influence to wield; compared to some of the supposed recipients of David Cameron’s resignation honours list, Beaverbrook was a political Titan. Call it business as usual, but being honoured merely for turning up makes a mockery of the whole show. When I meet somebody I ought to call Sir, or m’Lord I expect to be in the company of somebody of stature and sinew, not some chinless twerp who bunged the party a few quid or gave Mrs PM a nice blow wave. The honours system gets cheaper by the year; pretty soon they’ll be selling them by the pound. I want my knights and barons and earls to be better than me, but it seems we do all shit in the same pot after all.
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