Tuesday, 30 May 2006

Honours scandal

There has been a lot of fuss in the UK Press recently about the way honours and peerages are distributed. And horror of all horrors, it has even been suggested that money is involved.

I really don't see what all the fuss is about. This sort of selection has been used for a couple of hundred years by nearly all clubs and societies as standard practice. You can't join most clubs or societies unless you pay a subscription. Some clubs and societies are open to anyone who pays the sub, while others have additional qualifications.

A few examples: provided you pay £31 a year you can join the RSPB. If you pay £45 a year, and can show a genuine interest in Natural history, and get two existing members to sign your application, you can become a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, and put FLS after your name. To become a Fellow of the Institute of Biology (and be able to put FIBiol after your name) you need to be able to fill out a complex form demonstrating your professional qualifications and experience (see http://www.iob.org/downloads/851.pdf) and then pay £132 a year. All these are transparent and straightforward.

And surely that is where the honours systems fall down -- they are not open, transparent, or straight forward. If getting a peerage required a degree, x years experience, and payment of £500,000 to a good cause, and £500,000 to a political party, there would be no problem, we would all know what was involved; the cost of an OBE, MBE etc would all be pro rata, and some would involve no financial commitment. If a fellowship of the Royal Society required a PhD and 50 published papers and a payment of y thousand pounds, again , I see no problem. But when both systems are limited by numbers, subject to political bias, political correctness, and numerous other unquantifiable, secretive biases, there are bound to be problems. While all honours are currently handed out on the basis of unquantified personal judgements, there is bound to be disquiet, disgruntlement and dissatisfaction.

In fact, when the systems were created they were much more open and transparent. You knew that if you lent a medieval king a few thousand ducats, or killed a few of his enemies, you might get a knighthood or even a dukedom, and when the Royal Society was created, virtually anyone with a reasonable scientific background could become a member (provided they came from the right social background.)

Within the WLT we practice this in a minor way -- anyone can become a Partner, by donating a minimum of £5 a month, and we will name a reserve for a donation of £5000 or more. Yes, it is buying prestige perhaps, but at least it is totally open and transparent.

1 comment:

  1. The Stuart kings had the right idea, perhaps revealing their Scotch origin. James I appointed 200 English baronets in 1611 when he needed money to pay for the soldiers pacifying Ireland. So each baronet had to pay for the upkeep of 30 soldiers for 3 years =£1095. In 1625 Charles I created Scottish barons who paid 2000 marks to support six settlers in Nova Scotia for two years.

    Payment for favours was acceptable then but nowadays there are rules against it. Perhaps there could be three degrees of peerage to make it clear: hereditary, emeritus and