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Kind hearts don’t need coronets. By A N Wilson

Blog | By A N Wilson | Apr 30, 2024

No gongs: de Valera

My favourite moment, out of many superb moments, in Byron Rogers’s classic biography of the poet R S Thomas, is when the old curmudgeon received a letter from the Prime Minister offering him some kind of gong.

The clergyman poet did not answer the letter, of course. It went straight into the waste-paper basket where it belonged.

Yet many other intelligent people in Britain seem positively agog for a gong. My neighbour Jonathan Miller was a republican who had a huge range of talents– neurologist, opera producer, superb television performer. He could surely see it made him seem foolish to accept a knighthood, but he did so. He was too cool to call himself Sir Jonathan – which made the acceptance all the odder.

Some intelligent people disguise their hunger for such baubles by claiming their wives wanted to be called Lady So-and- So. When I was young and tactless, I asked Isaiah Berlin why a brilliant man such as him wanted to be a Sir.

He replied, preposterously, that he knew it was absurd, but if his mother had known he had turned down such an offer, he could imagine a tear rolling down her cheek. By then she was dead – so it was really the feeblest of reasons.

He went on to say I could not imagine what it was like to be a poor immigrant who’d arrived in England from Riga with a little cardboard suitcase.

Yes, but had the boat taken them from Latvia to Ireland, rather than to England, and had he been brought up in the Republic, he could not have become Sir Isaiah. Instead, he would have been recognized as the witty, brilliant Isaiah Berlin, with no need to aggrandise himself with a title.

One of the best things Éamon de Valera did, when the Irish Free State had been established in the 1920s, was to decide that Ireland would not have an honours system.

While the English eagerly open their newspapers twice a year, at New Year or on their sovereign’s birthday, to see whether they have been made an MBE, the Irish sensibly judge one another on their actual merits, rather than on letters that appear after their names.

It was a pity when rumours went round that Paul Dacre, the greatest of living journalists, was to be honoured by Boris Johnson. As Mr Dacre, he can remain the independent- journalist. He was my boss when I worked on the Standard and it was a daily object lesson in how to be a good journalist.

His successor, Stuart Steven, was so slavish in his longing for a knighthood that he made the paper ridiculous, with headlines such as ANOTHER TRIUMPH FOR JOHN MAJOR, when all the PM had done was fly back from some international summit. In the end, Major did not even give him the knighthood!

When I was on the Council of the Royal Society of Literature, our Chairman, Sir Michael Holroyd, would ask us for names to be submitted each year to the Honours Committee.

Someone suggested that a good writer, Nina Bawden, deserved to be made a dame. Holroyd and friends spent about 20 minutes deciding that while she might be worth an OBE or perhaps a CBE, she wasn’t quite in the DBE league.

The profound absurdity of trying to assess a writer’s merits in such a manner seemed to have occurred to no one. I would sit there wondering what honour, if any, my fellow-council members might give to Keats (CBE?) or Blake (BEM?).

Yet, every year, actors, athletes, businesspeople, bureaucrats and hosts of absolute nobodies are self-important – and childish – enough to think they mustn’t go home from school without a prize. They want to be Members of the British Empire, which does not even exist, or Companions of it.

Clearly the existence of gongs has the power to corrupt public life. The disgraced boss of the Post Office, the Rev Paula Vennells, was awarded the CBE: Mrs May’s government felt that Vennells was somehow helping to save government money, and deserved a reward. Mrs May later became Lady May, since her husband, an investment manager, was knighted for ‘political service’ by Boris Johnson.

The Mays must be among the two least distinguished public figures in British history – but he is a knight and she is a lady.

Isn’t it time to stop the whole nonsense?

The system was devised to compensate those in the military or the civil service who had served in public life when they could have been following more lucrative professions. You can see why major-generals and senior mandarins in the Foreign Officed might want to retire with a title. Now the big gongs, the knighthoods and damehoods, are given to donors to political parties, or to people whose ethnicity or trendiness will reflect well on the Prime Minister doling out the honours.

Hence the award to Floella Benjamin, a forgotten children’s TV presenter of very limited talent, of not only a peerage but also the Order of Merit. Former holders of the order actually had merit – Thomas Hardy, Florence Nightingale, Edward Elgar. Need one say more?