Napoleon's exile to Elba

Britain’s system of public honours looks increasingly absurd. The recent decision to strip disgraced banker Fred Goodwin of his knighthood only brings it further into disrepute

All nations, even the most egalitarian of republics, have some form of state recognition of outstanding service. The principle is based on sound management practice: it encourages workers if their work is appreciated and it encourages others when such people are held up as role models, and it costs very little. The French Revolution abolished all titles of nobility, and old revolutionaries objected when Napoleon replaced them with the Legion of Honour. The master of psychology replied, “With such baubles are men led.”

Baubles they are. It seems ridiculous that some people get worked up about them. Even more ridiculous is the way that most seem to go not, as they should, to people who make some great sacrifice or who go above and beyond the call of duty, but to people who simply do the jobs they are paid to do – and sometimes paid very well.

In the UK, the volunteer lifeboatman or the tireless charity worker might be thrown a bone in the form of an MBE (Membership of the Order of the British Empire, the lowest ranking honour), but there is no sense of proportion when higher ranking knighthoods are given to super-rich pop-stars or soccer-players simply because they are celebrities, or to bureaucrats who are already very well rewarded from the public purse.

Honours for businessmen as businessmen are equally superfluous. The proper reward for business is the money one earns, no more, no less. If a successful businessman gives a large proportion of his personal earnings to charity, or a lot of his free time to a good cause, he might deserve a separate honour for that, but no one should expect to be honoured for doing no more than enrich himself.

So it was wrong to give to give Sir Fred/Mr Goodwin a knighthood in the first place “for services to banking” – especially since it turned out that his services to banking consisted of leading the Royal Bank of Scotland into bankruptcy.

Yet two wrongs do not make a right. Once granted, an honour should not be revoked except in the most extreme circumstances. Mr Goodwin has been convicted of no criminal offence. He was stripped of his knighthood by a secret committee of bureaucrats, without a hearing, in response to a media campaign that had more than a whiff of a lynch mob about it. Goodwin may not deserve our sympathy but that does not justify the way the decision was made. Friends in high places should not be enough to honour a man nor subsequent unpopularity enough to dishonour him.   


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