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  1. Politics
27 August 2015

The honours system should be for heroes, not David Cameron’s mates

These things are meant to be our brightest and best, not an Employee of the Month award for Cameron's chums. 

By Stephen Bush

People feel differently about the honours system. Some people – many of them New Statesman readers – see them as a pointless relic of our imperial past. But the fact remains that for a lot of people, they remain a genuine honour: something to feel proud of.

Take Dr Nigel O’Connor,  a haematologist who worked for the NHS for close to 40 years, and founded the Shropshire Blood Trust, a charity that has raised enough money to set up a dedicated cancer treatment facility. He received an MBE, the same honour today bestowed on Margaret Binks, Nick Clegg’s constituency manager, Andrew Sangar, Nick Clegg’s election agent, and Phillipa Rudkin, George Osborne’s constituency manager.

Successfully electing a Liberal Democrat in 2015 may have been rare, but I’m yet to be convinced it was an act of heroism on a par with O’Connor’s. Electing a Conservative in Tatton, however, is neither heroic nor rare: with the exception of 1997, they’ve managed at every election since the seat’s creation. It is, however, more difficult than electing a Conservative in David Cameron’s constituency of Witney: his constituency manager, Caroline Balcon, receives an OBE.

For comparison, that’s the same honour that went to Jonathan Clegg, the “White Zulu”, an anti-apartheid musician and campaigner, and – to declare an interest – to my grandfather, for services to the treatment of HIV and Aids. I regard the whole thing as a somewhat strange affair – but I know it meant a great deal to him.

As of today, he shares this award not only with Balcon, but with Ramesh Chhabra, Osborne’s former spinner, and Hilary Stephenson, the deputy chief executive of the Liberal Democrats.

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Now, yes, of course, all of these people work exceptionally hard. It is worth pointing out, however, they are all paid for these efforts and, when they leave post, they can, like Rupert Harrison, now the proud owner of a CBE, and formerly of the Treasury, pick up a hefty pay cheque in the private sector afterwards. (It is worth noting that Downing Street’s catering assistants, who also work exceptionally hard but are unlikely to leverage their long hours into a lucrative slot on the speakers’ circuit, have been given a lesser honour, the BEM. Never let it be said that class hatred isn’t alive, well, and in Downing Street with a majority.)

And look, you can say that the honours system is an anachronistic joke, and that parties of all stripes hand them out to their mates. But parties of all stripes hand out honours to their friends and the process is always fairly grim, but this is a particularly ugly list – where the main requirement seems to be “I successfully came into work for Nick Clegg, David Cameron or George Osborne for more than a year”.

 No fewer than three sitting special advisors, including David Cameron’s deputy chief of staff, receive life peerages.  In total, six gongs have been given to former Liberal Democrat SpAds, and 10 have gone to Conservatives.  It feels more like an end-of-season set of awards for a pub football team (“Lad of the year goes to Big Rupe!”) than an honours system.

Which is fine, if, like me, you think the whole thing is an anachronism. But Nigel O’Connor doesn’t think that. Jonathan Clegg doesn’t think that. My grandfather didn’t think that. And really, shouldn’t the honours system work for them, not Cameron’s mates? 

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