Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Ex-RBS boss stripped of knighthood: what next for honours system?

And so the inevitable has happened.

The ex-RBS chief executive, formerly known as Sir Fred Goodwin, is now plain Mr Goodwin.

His honour was withdrawn yesterday following a dramatic turn of events that have seen him almost singularly blamed for creating the worst economic crisis for decades.

Goodwin's being stripped of his knighthood was not entirely unexpected. It's been in the offing for some time. It was discussed on Question Time a couple of weeks ago, with majority support for the annulment. And, while I don't wish to comment at any length about it, I was broadly supportive. Anyone who has received a knighthood for "services to banking" in spite of having brought his bank to the brink of collapse can only call himself "Sir" fraudulently. Fred Goodwin will be remembered for doing banking, and the country, a great dis-service.

Interestingly, he is only one of a handful who have been so dishonoured since Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. That itself is a statistic worth taking a moment to consider. I wonder who has been the source of the most human misery and unnecessary suffering: the Romanian dictator or the RBS chief?

No doubt this is a move that will prove popular with the public. I cannot argue that it isn't welcome. But what it will not do is anything to restore the damaged economy, to ensure that RBS works in the interests of its current shareholders (the public) or to change the banking culture which allows excessive bonuses and rewards reckless risk-taking. It can not in itself restore confidence in the British banking system, which is so desperately in need of overdue reform. A lot of questions remain to be asked about the UK's financial industry - and necessary actions taken to ensure it behaves in a more responsible way.

As I write, there are surely hundreds of bloggers making the same points, only more eloquently. I will leave it to them to explore the scope for a new model for our financial services.

What I'm actually interested in discussing is the UK honours system. It was curious to observe that the justification for stripping Goodwin of his title was that he had "brought the honours system into disrepute". Now, Mr Goodwin is guilty of many things but that surely isn't one of them. The honours system is already completely disreputable - any "system" that would give a knighthood to Fred Goodwin in the first instance is highly questionable.

What exactly does our honours system do if not reinforce celebrity culture or reward the "good and the great"? Fred Goodwin is simply the tip of the iceberg. In the last few years we've had the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Brian Souter, Mark Thatcher and Victor Blank being honoured for their dubious "services". Not to forget "Sir" Mervyn King, who is arguably far more responsible than Fred Goodwin for the current recession. And then we have the likes of Carol Vorderman being given an MBE for "services to television" (i.e. doing her job of putting some vowels and consonants on a board and doing some - sometimes tricky - arithmetical calculations), the England cricket team picking up gongs for beating Australia (including Paul Collingwood who played one match and scored 10 runs), soap "stars" being recognised and TV presenters such as Lorraine Kelly also receiving awards for "services". I've nothing against these people, but they are basically being rewarded for doing what they already get paid a fair amount to do.

In a culture obsessed with celebrity, the honours system reinforces it. People who are famous for being famous (no matter how briefly) are preferred over lifelong excellence. I suspect any GB athlete who wins a gold medal in this year's Olympics will be up for at least an OBE come next January.

So what future can our honours system possibly have? Do we simply want one that reflects celebrity culture and reinforces the status of the self-righteous "great", or do we want one that recognises long-term achievement, people who go the extra mile rather than those who appear most often on our TV screens, those who contribute to society's well-being rather than those who engineer short-term financial booms? If Fred Goodwin's knighthood told us anything it's that the "system", or society, values those who can make the most money. And if Dame Brian Souter's honour said anything, it's that any type of transgression need not serve as an impediment if you're a millionaire who can afford to give a bit to charity for tax purposes.

And let's briefly consider what honours actually are - they bestow upon the "honoured" the rather dubious privilege of being an Officer or a Member of a historic society responsible for so much human suffering - the British Empire. Why anyone would wish to accept entry into an "Empire" that not only has ceased to exist in all but name but has such an unenviable history I don't know. Personally, I'd find the mere overtones of colonialism offputting.

The honours system is at best a relic of a bygone era that reinforces dated perceptions of achievement and Victorian attitudes towards philanthropy. The list of recently honoured in itself demonstrates that the system is unfit for purpose and a poor reflection of British society. What is needed is a new, forward thinking and modern awards system, created in 21st century Britain for 21st century Britain - the kind of thing you'd think the Liberal Democrats would be championing with gusto.


Rod said...

I agree Andrew, It's a load of bunkum!
I took a different and slightly more Jaundiced view on my Blog articles,'The Black Arts' and 'The Shredding of Fred' about Fred and the British state's machinations.

You can find them here:

The Honours system itself is something which is archaic, costly,and meaningless to most of us. But it has been retained for a reason.The maintenance of the Class System and Royal Patronage.

Can I use your article for the Aye4Scotland Blog?
Giving full Credits of course!

Andrew said...

Rod - thanks for the link. By all means use my article for the Aye4Scotland blog!

Richard T said...

The use of the honours system to glorify the already great and good is abhorrent - Mick Jagger's knighthood is the exemplar of this nonsense. It seems to me that for the most part, such honours are expected by the recipients (even touted for in Sir Michael's case) and can reasonably be seen to be as self regarding as the entertainment industry's awards. It is a symptom of the old corruption prevalent in the British state from the mid 18th century and earlier. We can't forget the other aspect of the British honours system - James VI's invention of baronetcies to raise money ranks with the touting of honours by the Blair regime.

That said, it is undeniable that the award of say an OBE to someone whom has genuinely devoted themselves to the good of the puiblic gives true pleasure to the recipient, is well received by the community and most importantly is unlooked for.

Maybe the answer for Scotland in whatever form the country takes after the referendum is to split away from the old corruption of London and set up a means of recognising real contribution to the public good by say a medal. I have no objection to its award by the Queen should she be around then since by all accounts this is welcomed by the majority of those receiving such recognition. No further honours for the absentee scot Sir Sean Connery however.