The honours system needs reform

One writer discusses the inherent cronyism problem of Britain's honours system.

Amana Khan
24th April 2023
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In the UK, Prime Ministers who have left office are able to ask the monarch to grant certain honours, including knighthoods and peerages, to whoever they want. In March, reports emerged to suggest that former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had planned to nominate his father, Stanley Johnson, for a knighthood in his resignation honours. This has caused considerable controversy, with many arguing that his nomination is illegitimate and the result of nepotism.

Allegations of corruption and cronyism have resulted in the Labour Party asking the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to block this nomination, and it is not just the Opposition which considers this to be an abuse of power. Johnson’s previous housing Minister and current immigration Minister, Robert Jenrick, said on BBC Question Time that “Is it, as a principle, wise for a Prime Minister to nominate a member of their own family for an honour? No absolutely not.” This is not the first time Johnson has used his power to bolster his family or friends’ significance. Whilst Prime Minster, he nominated his brother to the House of Lords as well as his two close friends, Zac Goldsmith and Evgeny Lebedev.

In addition to Stanley Johnson's suggested nomination causing a stir due to questions about his merit and supposed corruption, his behaviour has been subjected to increased scrutiny. This is because Caroline Nokes MP accused Johnson of sexually harassing her in 22003, claiming he smacked her and made offensive comments towards her. Journalist Alibhe Rea has made similar allegations. This has further inflamed the debate around the legitimacy and desirability of his nomination, with chief whip of the Lib Dems, Wendy Chamberlain, arguing the nomination “makes a mockery” of the honours system.

In recent years we have seen politicians blatantly put the interests of themselves and their allies ahead of those of the country

This nomination is not the first example of Boris Johnson’s cronyism and corruption. However, it is worth thinking about the cronyism and corruption of the British political system in general. Recent years have seen politicians blatantly serve the interests of themselves and their allies. For example, in 2022 Boris Johnson ensured the protection of Owen Paterson, who was found to have lobbied the government on behalf of different companies and was paid over £100,000.

There seems to be a sense of discontent and distrust with the public due to the supposed return of party sleaze. Does this mean that there needs to be reforms of certain aspects of the UK political system to modernise the country and gain back public trust?

The inherent corruption in the honours system means that reform is needed

I would argue that reform is needed. The honours system is outdated and facilitates corruption. It is meant to be something that rewards those who have made outstanding achievements in public life and have “committed themselves serving and helping Britain”. In practice, this system seems to be on that relishes in the accomplishments of others, which is not something that should be disregarded. Furthermore, the ties that the honours system has with empire, with OBE standing for Order of the British Empire, maintains this hierarchal link between Britain and its ex-colonies.

Thus, with the changing nature of British society and increased corruption within the political system, it is clear that the honours system is in need of much reform if it is to be considered democratic, legitimate and reflective of British society.

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