Reports that Boris Johnson wants his resignation honours list to include a knighthood for his dad, Stanley, are very disappointing. Not because it makes explicit the sleazy corruption of the system – that’s very much one of Boris’s functions in public life – but because it seems such a missed opportunity. What he should be demanding is that his old man gets a baronetcy. That’d still see him called Sir Stanley, but crucially it’s an hereditary title, so in due course it would be passed on to Boris himself. Now, that would be real style.
The closest precedent for this is the baronetcy conferred upon Denis Thatcher in 1990, when his missus left Downing Street. That’s why the useless son is now known as Sir Mark. And if Margaret Thatcher had had her way, Mark would be even more elevated: on her retirement from the Commons, she lobbied for the title Countess of Finchley, but ended up with just a bog-standard little life peerage instead.
That interest in hereditary titles suggests that, like so many self-proclaimed iconoclastic enemies of the establishment, Thatcher’s real wish was to be accepted by the world she decried. Indeed, she gave out the last three hereditary peerages that have ever been awarded. One was to Harold Macmillan, who should have claimed his earldom twenty years earlier when the old principles were still in place. The others were to Willie Whitelaw, who had four daughters but no son, and to the childless George Thomas, the first Speaker of the House of Commons to become a media star (he was in office when broadcasts of the Chamber started); both became viscounts, and – in the absence of a male heir – their titles died with them. Which was the point. These were de facto life peerages, but with an added element of flattery. And flattery is much of the point.
There have been some complaints that the many sordid stories circulating about Stanley Johnson should rule out the idea of giving him an honour. Again though, Thatcher established that this wasn’t really the case. She fought hard for years to get a knighthood for Jimmy Savile, even after he’d been turned down by the Honours Committee, and eventually she got her way. She also approved the same honour for Cyril Smith, despite being informed of his abuse of children. And in her own resignation honours, she gave a knighthood to Peter Morrison, who had run her (unsuccessful) campaign to retain the party leadership, and who had similar proclivities: ‘what they call “a noted pederast” with a liking for young boys,’ according to Edwina Currie.
The truth is, of course, that the honours system has always been deeply dodgy. Baronets only exists because James I wanted to raise some money, so he made up the title and flogged it off. The same attitude has thrived ever since. Hilaire Belloc’s novel Mr Clutterbuck’s Election (1908) mocked the sale of honours, and enjoyed a revival in the 1920s when stories of David Lloyd George’s corruption became public property. Harold Wilson’s press secretary, Joe Haines wrote of the 1970s: ‘Disreputable men had unwarranted honours grudgingly bestowed upon them because they were generous with donations.’ And one must assume that Tony Blair’s mate Michael Levy got his peerage in thanks for the amount of money he donated to – and the money he raised for – the Labour Party; he was questioned by the police during the 2006 Cash for Honours investigation, though no charges were ever brought.
(Actually, in Levy’s case, the honour felt appropriate: if anyone deserves to dress in scarlet and ermine, it is surely the man who founded Magnet Records and brought us the music of Alvin Stardust, Guys ‘n’ Dolls and Bad Manners.)
The problem with the system is that people who give money to political parties are honoured not by those parties but by the state. And that’s wrong. If we’re going to sell honours, we should do so openly and honestly, and do it in the interests of the nation. Auction off those peerages, baronetcies and knighthoods, with the proceeds going to the Exchequer. If you’re prepared to stump up a million quid for the country, then you’re probably entitled to call yourself Sir or Dame.
There should still be room for free peerages for those who might add something to Parliament. But that’s not really how it’s working now. Because the real scandal is that we have seven former prime ministers still alive, and not one of them is in the House of Lords. Three of them have an excuse, since they’re still in the Commons, but the absence of John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron is a disgrace. It’s their duty to be in Parliament. What’s the point of having an Upper Chamber if it can’t draw on the experience of those who know more about government than anyone else?
Mind you, there’s a trio of ex-chancellors who have been so elevated, and I’m not sure that the presence of Nigel Lawson, Norman Lamont and Kenneth Clarke on the red benches – as the Barons of Blaby, Lerwick and Nottingham respectively – has added greatly to good governance. Maybe we should just leave the system as it is, and settle for the way that it adds to the gaiety of the nation.