HONOURS ARE STRANGE. People dream of their talents being recognised, getting peerages or knighthoods or CBEs and the like. But working in Westminster, it is easy to be cynical about the system. Peerages rarely go to people who have made some contribution to their particular field, as the medic Lord Winston has done. Usually, peers are superannuated MPs, kicked upstairs to make room for younger talent.
The next crop is ripening. Ken Clarke, 71, will be pushed out by David Cameron’s summer reshuffle. Probably Francis Maude too. Leader of the House Sir George Young. The Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan and Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman can’t be long for the front benches. The coalition cannot afford any by-elections, but come the next election we will see these and other retiring MPs donning the ermine. A reward from a grateful nation for a life of public service? Hardly. The reward of a Prime Minister (or ex-Prime Minister) for going quietly.
It’s just the same with other honours. MPs get Knighthoods just for serving out 25 years in the House of Commons – not for any distinction. The heads of various quangos and big local authorities can expect to get them automatically too. It does work – it keeps their fingers out of the till, and all it costs in return is a bit of ribbon and a cheap tin star.
Losing an honour is even less meritocratic. Yes, Anthony Blunt was a spy, so his fingers were pretty deep in the till, metaphorically. And what about Fred Goodwin? Sure, his aggressive management style and expansionist strategy ruined the Royal Bank of Scotland and many of its shareholders. But that’s hardly treason. His problem was that he was still standing when the music stopped. Until then, everyone had been praising his style. Losing his Kt was the verdict of trial by a TV mob, not by a jury. Or there is Jeffrey Archer, who some people reckon should lose his peerage for his perjury. Well, if you got rid of every liar in the House of Lords, there wouldn’t be many peers left. Getting rid of one just because he’s a bit bumptious hardly seems fair.
So national honours invite cynicism. The way they are doled out, and the way they are removed, is entirely political. Why should any normal person have anything to do with this nonsense? I have often thought that if I were ever offered some paltry gong, I would tell them to stuff it.
But recently I was given something I value much more – an honorary DLitt from Heriot-Watt University. I have never thought of myself as an academic, though the simple introductions I have written on various economists and schools of economics do receive much gratifying praise, so I equally never expected such a thing. Indeed, it gave me quite a start. From my time on various committees in St Andrews I know something of how honorary degrees are awarded, and it is much more meritocratic than the Whitehall system.
Academics argue for a living, so any candidate who gets through that process must have some positive qualities. And with my strong free-market and libertarian views, I am probably more controversial a candidate than most. Soas I reflected on it, I found myself more and more deeply touched by the proposed award. It is indeed nice to be recognised for a lifetime of doing something that you think is important.
But – this reflects on my low self-esteem – I still wasn’t sure. So I asked some of the academics at Heriot-Watt if they really knew what they were doing. One of the deans at St Andrews, who had to give the laureation to honorary graduates, told me his opinion of the candidates often subsided as he researched them. But no, they all told me it was hugely deserved and they had no reservations about it. As did other current and retired academics in Edinburgh who had heard the news. It was a really touching thing.
Collecting the award left me in no doubt of the sincerity of the University. My family and I were treated like royalty, we dined with other honorary graduates who were all at the top of their profession. Every academic, every staffer, every student there seemed as honoured that we each had accepted the honour as we were to receive it.
I have now formed a real bond with the University, which I am confident will last. On the basis of my fund-raising for the Adam Smith statue in Edinburgh’s High Street, I shall be helping them to raise money to restore Adam Smith’s old home in the Canongate, and make it accessible to the world’s public. It seems a very modest thank-you for their recognition and their friendship.
Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Instiute.