It’s that time of year again, when the roulette wheel stops and an anxious nation learns who’s bagged a gong in the New Year honours list.
It would be unchivalrous as well as unnecessary to bring up Sir Jimmy Savile’s knighthood. Nor need mention be made of Sirs Nicolae Ceauşescu, Fred Goodwin, Lester Piggott and Robert Mugabe, or the bent financier Jack Lyons. But as these illustrious defrocked show, bestowing honours now means taking a punt: plaster saints so often prove to have feet of clay. One of the headaches facing the honours committee, which passes up a list of names via the prime minister to Her Majesty, is that it knows that it is betting on the future durability of present reputation. Bradley Wiggins seems a good egg, but then so did the now benighted Lance Armstrong, his feat in winning the Tour after shrugging off testicle cancer dimmed by a cocktail of performance pills and diuretics. The problem of drug-pepped prowess extends beyond sport. What if it turns out that Tracey Emin produced such works as My Bed and Everyone I Have Ever Slept With while out of her tree on bong?
Still, like death and taxes, ranking seems a fixed feature of the human scene. My modest proposal is to keep the gong ladder, with its gradations stretching down from Ks down to BEM. We could however rejig things to comport more closely with the temper of the times. One way to do it would be to revive and extend James I’s wheeze of selling knighthoods: James managed to shift more than nine hundred of them in the first four months of his reign, mainly by threatening landowners with a fine if they didn’t cough up. Failing that, one could award honours via a lottery, on the basis that there’s so much good in the worst of us, etc.
Some will no doubt object that such a reform would corrupt the honours system, even bring it into disrepute. One’s tempted to reply by citing the defence used by lawyers representing clients tried for showing pornographic films, in a case brought in Jersey under its version of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act’s ‘deprave and corrupt’ test: they argued that the accused, having been long immersed in such filth, were already so depraved and corrupted that further exposure was unlikely to make things much worse. Though the case was lost on the narrow legal issue, the defendants surely won a notable moral victory.
Suppose honours were flogged off like Louis XV chairs. The government could run a Dutch auction for Ks starting at, say, £100m. Regnant orthodoxy holds that everything has its price. As in the debate over Xmas gift-giving, hard-hat libertarians will point out that even the woolliest anti-marketeer is likely to go all Hayekian when forced to choose between a home-knitted tangerine tank top and a cheque for, say, £5m. Money is the measure of all things, be they human kidneys, university education or otherworldly salvation, a venerable litmus test of fungibility. This would generate public revenue, and create assets that could then be traded, speculated on and used as collateral like other gilts.
The other option, the honours lottery, is less random than it may sound. It’s not just that there is some good to be found in all of us, even in Jimmy Savile and Mark Thatcher. It’s that by ranking people without any pretence of linkage to merit, it panders to the ranking urge without any compromise of civic equality – Danny Boyle reportedly turned down a knighthood for this reason. Why does Sir Bradley get dubbed while other gold medallists, or those without winning personalities who excel in non-telegenic sports like bog-snorkelling, don’t? It’s not just that awards don’t track ‘merit’, as measured by such things as sporting triumph, very closely: merit doesn’t closely track fairness either. You can try hard and still suck. I always wanted to be a ballerina. But in the race for the grand jeté, Darcey Bussell CBE was, for many reasons, always going to have the edge. How fair is that? Why not honour people who spend forty years cleaning the streets on the minimum wage?
Aristotle worried that rule by honour, or ‘timocracy’, would degenerate into democracy. Our inverse problem is that the democratic ethos subverts non-pecuniary justifications for honour, while ones based on cash force us to face the patent non-equivalence of money with merit.