The honours system is a cynical relic. Theresa May just proved it – Boris Johnson may just break it

Kuba Shand-Baptiste
Reuters

Do we live in a functioning meritocracy? Sceptics will feel entirely vindicated this week after the release of the former prime minister’s resignation honours list.

The system has long been a vehicle for cynical political patronage, peppered with upstanding, genuinely hard-working citizens to sweeten the sour taste. But in Theresa May’s own words, she claimed to want a system that ensured we “recognise when people out there are really contributing to our society and their communities.”

Looking at her list, and the wave of criticism that followed, it’s clear her grasp on what that actually means was lost long ago. Those bona fide recipients failed to mask the absurdity of other honourees.

The key rewards were for unflinching loyalty, not unfailing altruism. Cronies were granted knighthoods and other gongs for dutifully following May into the fiery pits of Brexit Britain for the past few unbearable years. Three former aides – Gavin Barwell, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – have been honoured.

You’ll remember the latter two for their disastrous handling of the 2017 Tory election campaign, during which both were accused of using “US-style attack politics” and a “rude, abusive and childish approach to work”. Such courage, such virtue.

Barwell, a former housing minister who later served as May’s chief of staff, was one of a succession of ministers accused of failing to act to review building regulations for tower blocks. That review could have helped to prevent tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire. A deserving candidate for a knighthood indeed.

May’s former communications chief Robbie Gibb is now Sir Robbie Gibb, an outcome described by Robert Peston as the “funniest thing ever”.

“No one in his role has ever been as hard to get hold of, or at least not in the 30 years I have been reporting this stuff,” ITV’s political editor said. Is this May’s idea of “really contributing”?

And when we look beyond her inner circle, of course, there’s Geoffrey Boycott, the ex-England cricketer, offered a knighthood in spite of being convicted of assaulting his then-partner, in his own words, “25 years ago, love”. It is something Boycott has always denied.

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And so we have an honours list marked by abhorrent, indefensible mistakes, by what some might call professional incompetence and by political players who propped up a wildly dysfunctional and increasingly undemocratic government. But that was ages ago right? A couple of months, 25 years, what’s the big deal?

Well, in my view the honours system itself is an unnecessary relic of a colonial legacy that in this day and age should carry a lot less weight. In the space where there could be a celebration of nobility and fairness, there is an underbelly of nepotism and personal favour. And May has form in maintaining its rotten reputation.

Last year, in a desperate bid to win over politicians to her Brexit deal, May’s patronage fell on MPs like Brexiteer John Redwood and former Tory minister Gary Streeter. It was a cynical, transparent move then. It feels like a slap in the face now.

At the heart of my personal view about the honours system is the ridiculous reality that these people are placed on an equal footing with, or above, those who really have dedicated their lives to others, whether through activism or individual acts of heroism.

I know people who have spent years and years toiling in this country, who have quite literally supported hundreds, possibly thousands of people over the years, and who have led long, hard campaigns to improve people’s lives before they even got close to such recognition. My late godfather, Isola Akay MBE, who founded the All Stars Boxing Gym in northwest London, was one of them.

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The powerful and valuable legacies of this country’s real heroes have been cheapened by the audacious recognition of so many of these people – from Olly Robbins, architect of May’s three-times rejected withdrawal deal, to Brandon Lewis, who famously reneged on a promise not to vote on Brexit legislation when an opposition MP had recently given birth. Why must we tolerate business as usual?

Like her predecessor David Cameron, who faced similar criticism for his final honours list, including from May herself, the former PM doesn’t care. Few prime ministers before her have. If anything, like a societal blacklight exposing our ugliest stains, this list is as true a reflection of how politics works in the UK as anything.

And if you’re still not convinced, if you think there is some practical use for this disreputable tradition, and in case you think the wheels of Westminster need greasing somehow, then just pause a second to imagine the parade of deadbeats and charlatans Boris Johnson will put forward from his own rogue government.