The British Honours System: When Will It Be “Sir” David Beckham?

Would you like to become a “Lord”, Lady” or even a Knight Commander (KCB) of The Order Of The Bath? And if you do manage to acquire a title, what benefits will it bring you – apart, of course, from impressing your friends and family? The financial reporter, Tony Walne, has speculated in the “Daily Mail” that the main advantage of being elevated to the aristocracy would be that he’d immediately start to receive “red carpet” treatment – “everything from private banking, flight upgrades, the best seats at restaurants and theatres and complimentary champagne whenever he stayed at a hotel”.

Steven Glover, a journalist with the same newspaper, has provided his own “diverting insight into the honours rigmarole”: If you scratch a rebel, he wrote “you will often find someone who craves to become part of the Establishment”. The Rolling Stones lead singer, Mick Jagger, is often cited as an example: The decision of this “once self-proclaimed anarchist” to accept a knighthood in 2003 “for services to music” disappointed (it is rumoured) fellow band member Keith Richards as well as many of Jagger’s fans.

As is the case every January, some of the nominations for these awards have proved controversial. They are bestowed on a bi-annual basis – at the New Year and in mid-June on the date of the Queen’s official birthday (usually the 2nd Saturday in June, though her actual birthday is 21st April). The list is prepared by the Cabinet Office Honours and Appointments Secretariat and then submitted to the Monarch for her informal approval. Many of this month’s recipients are considered to have fully merited the accolade – for example, tennis champion Andy Murray (now a “Sir”), the four gold-medal winning Olympic athlete Sir Mo Farah, Olympic heptathlete Dame Ennis Hill, Sir Mark Rylance, the star of Wolf Hall and Bridge of Spies and Professor Jane Francis (now also a Dame) who, as the Guardian’s science editor Ian Sample pointed out on December 30th, “is a ‘polar scientist’ who has helped to uncover the dramatic historical warming in the Antarctica”.

There has been somewhat less consensus in the UK media regarding the British editor-in-chief of American Vogue, Anna Wintour (on whom Miranda Priestley, the formidable boss of the New York fashion magazine in the 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada”, was said to be based) being made a “Dame” and particularly whether Victoria Beckham should have been awarded an OBE (“Officer Of The Most Excellent Order Of the British Empire”), thirteen years after her husband received the same honour.

The reaction of the Sunday Times columnist, Camilla Long, on 1st January, was scathing: Victoria, she declared “has made no important contribution to fashion. She doesn’t even fully design her clothes: She admits she can’t sketch and has a team of designers to help”. Furthermore, Long suspects that Beckham’s label is “little more than a vanity project” designed to distance herself from her husband and family. The “Fashion Network” also noted that Beckham had been criticised in British tabloid newspapers for telling her family about her OBE before it was officially announced.

The satirical magazine, Private Eye, has described many of the “gongs dished out” as the usual prizes for the “privileged few”. It noted that the CBE (Commander Of The British Empire) for “businesswoman and fashion designer Anya Hindmarch was recommended by the economic honours committee – of which she is a member. In addition, that the chairman of the arts committee which proposed a knighthood for Ray Davies, lead singer of “The Kinks”, “is theatre impresario Rupert Gavin – who also happens to be one of the main financial backers of the musical ‘Sunny Afternoon’, composed by Davies.

Private Eye was not impressed either by the knighthood given to Ian Powell, for eight years chairman of accountancy organization PricewaterhouseCoopers UK: “Over this time, his firm pushed some of its major clients – including Vodafone, GlaxoSmithKline and the Guardian Media Group – into the Luxembourg tax avoidance machine that cost economies round the world, including the UK’s, billions of pounds in lost tax”.

A report by Parliament’s Public Administration Select Committee has stated that “honours are not mere decorations; they are important symbols of what is valued in national life”. For the Independent’s commentator, Justin Byam Shaw, that’s precisely the problem: “The current system institutionalises snobbery, privilege and social ranking and reinforces the obsession society has with wealth and fame. Only those who have given great service to the nation beyond their paid job or have shown outstanding courage should receive any honour at all”. Stephen Glover considers the “customary honouring” of celebrities and actors to be “pretty undignified”: “Governments, of course, think otherwise: They aim to enjoy reflected glory when an honour is conferred on a pop singer, football manager or actor”. We should free ourselves, he has declared, of all this “Ruritanian nonsense”.

The political activist and former Boomtown Rats vocalist Bob Geldof and U2 lead singer Bono have both been awarded honorary knighthoods, but can’t call themselves “Sir” as they are Irish. David Bowie and Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow reputedly turned down the offer of an OBE and Howard Gayle, Liverpool FC’s first black player, felt that accepting an MBE (Member Of The Order Of The British Empire) would be incompatible with the fact that his ancestors “had been enslaved by the Empire and colonialism”.

The Honours Forfeiture Committee can cancel an award: It stripped former Royal Bank Of Scotland boss, Fred Goodwin, of his knighthood in 2012 and on 20th October 2016, Parliament voted in favour of the same action being taken against Sir Philip Green, former owner of the collapsed high street retailer, BHS (British Home Stores).

There are other ways of joining the British aristocracy: If you’re over 21 years of age, a citizen of the UK, a Commonwealth country or Ireland and resident in Britain for tax purposes, you can apply for a peerage to the House Of Lords Appointments Committee. If you’re accepted, you’ll be given a red cape to wear on ceremonial occasions and will be paid £300 a day for merely turning up. Alternatively, you can become a “Lord Of The Manor” by sending £1495 to “Elite Titles”. They say they have a selection of fifteen titles available, among them Duke & Duchess, Marquis & Marchioness and Earl, Count & Countess. All you have to do is “place your order and look forward to receiving a colourful Certificate with details explaining how to use your new Title”.

Filed under: Politics, Society | Posted on January 17th, 2017 by Colin D Gordon

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