In 2014, the Natural Environment Research Council launched a poll to name a new polar research vehicle. Respondents chose the name Boaty McBoatface, which won out over such alternatives as It’s Bloody Cold Here, Usain Boat, Boatimus Prime, I like Big Boats and I Cannot Lie and Blas de Lezo (look him up).
Inspiration can be found here for a way of solving the conundrum caused by David Cameron’s resignation honours list.
There is a three part defence of the list (the contents of which have not yet been published, but been widely trailed in advance, and not been denied).
The first is that there’s nothing wrong with political honours – or, to be more specific, honours awarded in resignation honours lists. The second is that the majority of names on the leaked list are those of public servants, and that public servants should not receive honours. The third is that Cameron’s attitude to honours is a healthy one: the Lords needs more Conservative peers, because the Party is under-represented in it, and other recent Prime Ministers have been too prissy about exploring the exciting opportunities that the workings of the honours system open up.
As readers are well aware, this defence has its weaknesses.
Yes, there’s nothing wrong with such honours, but it does not follow that each is wise. I am sure that Isabel Spearman, who seems essentially to have been Sam Cameron’s stylist, is a delightful person, but is it really right that she should gain an OBE? If it is, the precedent should surely be applied more widely. It has been widely reported that Leave supporters are just a bit under-represented on the list. Why not award Matthew Elliott’s hair stylist an OBE, as we have previously suggested? Or extend the principle further to Chris Grayling’s, say, or Iain Duncan Smith’s?
Yes, the majority of names on the leaked list are indeed those of public servants, and there is certainly no reason why public servants should not receive honours. But while it is right for some of Cameron’s closest colleagues to receive honours, the integrity of the system breaks down if most of them do – on the Gilbert and Sullivan principle that “when everyone is somebody, then no-one’s anybody”. Furthermore, a few of the names risk damaging the reputations of most of them. (There is no reason, for example, why Ed Llewellyn should not receive a peerage, and every reason why David Lidington should receive a knighthood.)
And, yes, Cameron was right to recommend more knighthoods for MPs – since being an MP is a form of public service – and the creation of more Conservative peers. However, that does not justify this resignation list. Most recent Prime Ministers have avoided them, judging that these may evoke memories of Harold Wilson’s “Lavender List”, and thus degrading the system. Cameron will be well aware of the danger, but either doesn’t care, or is somehow set on bolstering his enemies’ claim that he ran his Government for his chums, not the country.
So what to do?
The best answer may well be: nothing – since there is no convenient solution to what risks becoming known as the “Chillaxing List”. It is bound to boost support for an elected Lords, even though most of those honoured won’t gain peerages. We still oppose such a move, but have to admit that the present Upper Chamber is becoming harder to defend by the day. Furthermore, the list will bolster backing for the Appointments Committee or some other body to have more power to block recommendations, which would bring with it the risk of politicising the system still further. Indeed, the list may actually encourage the fashionable practice of withdrawing honours (as in the case of Fred Goodwin), under the terms of our old friend the law of unexpected consequences – which would surely be a bad thing.
ConservativeHome has a better solution.
We suggest applying the Boaty McBoatFace principle. If a particular name raises eyebrows, the Appointments Committee should have the right to apply one of our other old friends, Direct Democracy. If it concludes, for example, that the case for awarding Will Straw a CBE is questionable, he should none the less gain the honour, and have those three hallowed letters after his name – and whatever else the public wants to add, too. Let the people decide! A poll should be launched to find the most popular suggestion, perhaps run by the Natural Environment Research Council, which has such an outstanding record in this regard.
If Straw ends up with the honorific Will Straw CBE-LoserFace, for example, or Will Straw CBE-LeaveWinnerFace, so be it. After all, the row over the list – which shows no sign of abating – suggests that the system needs a shot in the arm. Cameron McCameronFace has left May McMayFace a problem to resolve.