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27 March 2000

Honoured in the breach

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

The most popular milkman in Scotland thanked the Queen for her kind invitation to Buckingham Palace, but said that he would prefer it if she were to come to him. And, very wisely, she has agreed. When Sean Connery is knighted in July, the ceremony will be held at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, the city where he started his working life delivering milk for the Co-op. The Queen is wise to come to Edinburgh, because Shir Sean is a great deal more popular in Scotland than she is. It will do her image no end of good to be seen in his company.

Two years ago, Connery was vigorously and publicly backed by the Scottish National Party and, more importantly, by popular opinion for a knighthood. The world-famous actor and patriotic Scotsman had campaigned for a Yes/Yes vote in the devolution referendum, and almost everyone in Scotland felt that he should at least get a major honour, if not be made president of the place. Everyone, it seems, except Donald Dewar. When Connery was passed over for any sort of honour, it was widely rumoured that Dewar had vetoed it because of Connery’s support for the SNP. Whatever the truth, no knighthood was forthcoming. And it was a political misjudgement of some size, because the popular support for Connery, which was neither shaken nor stirred by his nationalism, was ignored.

It gets worse. Now that the mistake has been rectified, it looks like a victory for the SNP. Newspaper stories about Shir Sean are adorned with quotes from Alex Salmond, almost giving the impression that the knighthood comes from the SNP, rather than from Her Majesty and her grudging government. Come July, it will get worse still. For the first time, there will be television cameras at an investiture when Connery kneels in front of the Queen. The pictures will be on every news bulletin and, no doubt, beamed around the world by the likes of CNN. All in all, it is a PR cock-up for the Scottish Executive when it could, with some common sense, have been a PR triumph – a Scottish government honouring the world’s most famous Scotsman (instead of the SNP fixing it for Sean).

The more general problem is that the government is uncomfortable with the honours system. Instead of using it to associate itself with popular and charismatic achievers who have improved the quality of life for others, it tends to use the Lords for political purposes and to leave the rest of the awards to bump along much as they were. John Major’s introduction of nominations seems to have had little effect. By and large, ordinary people do not nominate candidates, and very few know the identity or the address of their Lord Lieutenant. Even if they find the right person to write to, the process after they do is still mysterious.

If Labour is uncomfortable with the honours system, then a sensible approach would be to demystify it. For a government that sets much store on researching public opinion, it should not be difficult to devise an annual method of introducing a popular vote into the process. Once nominations are in, why not allow people to vote for whomever they believe to be deserving of an OBE or whatever? Sensible criteria could be framed and campaigning banned. Certainly, there is a danger of some rogue results and some unlikely recipients, but it would still be preferable to the regular sight of wealthy businessmen being rewarded with an honour (by Labour as well as Tory governments) for doing their jobs and making themselves a lot of money, or the anonymous civil servants who routinely collect a CBE with their pension.

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An annual poll, well organised and well publicised, would put popular support behind the honours system and transform it from the semi-archaic and boring ritual it now is. Sir David and Lady Beckham might be hard to swallow, but at least it would have the enthusiastic support of a couple of million Manchester United and Spice Girls fans, whereas the elevation of Sir Bufton Tufton would probably please only Lady Tufton.

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When Connery received the freedom of the City of Edinburgh in 1991, it was a hugely popular and memorable event. Crowds lined the streets to cheer Connery and his wife, Micheline, and there were extraordinary scenes when he visited his old school, Bruntsfield Primary, when he sat in a classroom to be asked questions by the children. One demanded to know Connery’s annual income. “Good queshtion, shon, but shince nobody wanted to know it when I lived here, I don’t shee why I should tell you now.” At the ceremonies in the Usher Hall, Connery’s entrance was greeted with a rafter-lifting roar, which died away to one voice from the balconies: “Go on yersel’ Big Tam!” Sean, ne Tam, Connery recognised the shouter and winked at him. And when the formalities were over, Big Tam danced an impromptu Highland jig with the band. Edinburgh and her most famous son were in rapture.

That sense of joyful celebration should be behind the honours system, rather than all this top-hat-and-tails solemnity. When Shir Sean arises at Holyrood Palace in July, let’s hope he is wearing his dancing shoes.

Alistair Moffat