You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gong

I once asked the late J G Ballard if he'd been offered an honour. He told me he had - a KCBE, or something of that stripe - but when he queried whether he'd be able to style himself Commander Ballard, the gong wonk (gonk?) said no, and so he refused it.

The other day I heard a commentator on the radio saying that perhaps every time the newly stripped Fred Goodwin had to book a restaurant table and give his name as "Mr Goodwin" it would remind the disgraced RBS chairman of his own gross moral turpitude. Clearly, this sage - I believe it was "Sir" Digby Jones, late of the CBI and the last government - would rather that Goodwin was burning in a sulphurous pit for all eternity, but failing that, the very common torment of having to enunciate "Mr Goodwin" would have to do.

Personally, I doubt this speech act would be sufficient to unstopper a cascade of penitence - I cannot imagine that Fred - as I prefer to think of him in these PCMT (Post-Call-Me-Tony) times - has the conscience required to feel the pain of every single British taxpayer who continues to have to work in order to patch up the hole he shredded in his former money-factory's balance sheet - oh, and pay for his pension as well.

I'm Sir Fred!

The question raised by the Goodwin debacle is: why is it that people, en masse, go crazy for honours? The answer, surely, is hypnotism: a gong dangled in front of even the most clear-sighted individual sends them into a deep-time trance of reverence for the institutions and powers-that-be (and have always been, as they never tire of telling you). It doesn't seem to matter who they're handed out to, or for what, or indeed that the "British Empire" of which so many of them are members, companions, knights, baronesses and order-recipients now amounts to little more than a few fly-specks on the map. Postmistresses and panjandrums, journalists - who really should know how infra dig it is - and junk-bond traders: they all fall into the same trance.

That Lloyd George was spunking off honours on his buckers and cronies a century ago, and that this gushing continues unabated a century later, affects gongers, gongesses and the great un-gonged not one jot. Gong devaluation certainly won't be the result of Fred's ritual humiliation - on the contrary, such group-think histrionics produce exactly the opposite effect.

It's quantitative easing that might well solve the vexed question of knighted, enobled and otherwise honoured wanker-bankers as well - let's give everyone a knighthood! True, it would be a bit like that scene in Spartacus, with lollipop lady after manicurist after call-centre operative rising to his or her feet and bellowing, "I'm Sir Fred Goodwin!", "I'm Sir Fred Goodwin!", but at least these absurd hunks of tin would become just that. (Of course, poor Liz Windsor's arm might drop off with all that dubbing - someone will have to design a knighting machine along the lines of Margaret Atwood's LongPen, the remote-signing device she invented so that she could honour purchases of her books at a distance with a few wiggles of a stylus on a computer screen.)

Lord Prezza

Defenders of the honours lunacy always point out that it isn't only crony capitalists and political placemen and women who are cloaked in ermine and topped-off with balls. But the odd ennobled social worker is no match for those furious oxymorons: the Labour lords - surely paradoxes on a par with fascist humanitarians or vegan hammerhead sharks. Indeed, the willingness of quondam social democrats (let alone socialists) to take such titles tells you all you need to know about the English - and Scots, Welsh and Irish - vice of hypocrisy.

I have more sympathy for hereditary peers than I do for Prescott, Kinnock, Mandelson et al. At least they acquired their titles through good old fashioned expropriation - or brewing - and the notion that we commoners exist in the sub-basements of their Downton Abbeys may be offensive, but it isn't flat-out ridiculous.

Which brings us full-circle back round the M25 to J G Ballard. He was right, honours are all about how to style yourself and the stripping of Fred's knighthood will have no impact on his carefree ability to book a table at the most expensive restaurant in the land – that, clearly, is a matter of substance.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Boris vs Ken