Gavin Williamson’s recent knighthood has dealt a massive blow to the honours system, with many reacting with both disbelief and disgust at his appointment.
From being sacked twice as Education Secretary and Defence Secretary to confusing Marcus Rashford with another black sportsman, Marcus Itojie, and to then even telling Russia to “go away and shut up” after the Salisbury poisoning, it has been one embarrassment after another for Williamson. So how did we get into this mess, and how do we fix it?
To start, we can look at a recent knighthood that everyone agrees was well deserved. One of the most heartwarming pieces of news during the pandemic was hearing how Captain Tom Moore walked 100 lengths of his garden, raising over £30 million for the NHS. The public rallied around him; on his 100th birthday he received over 150,000 birthday cards and was appointed an honorary colonel. The positive impact he had led to a knighthood in July 2020, met with much joy from the public due to his extraordinary efforts to his country, both during the Second World War, and in the Covid pandemic, where he inspired 1.5 million people to donate to the NHS.
In comparison, Gavin Williamson received his knighthood in March 2022, after being sacked twice from his job, being branded the most incompetent education secretary of all time, and allegedly leaking information from a meeting with the national security council on Huawei and its 5G network. Williamson’s knighthood was not just a “reward for failure” (as Labour put it), but a black mark that devalues the whole honour system, simply based on his friendship with, and support of, Johnson.
With such inconsistency, it’s no wonder many have called for an end to the system entirely. But these calls forget the system’s successes. The honours system plays an important role in our society, rewarding those that have gone far beyond what is expected of them, in order to make an impact at a regional or national level. Carers or doctors or certain NGO workers who go above what is expected of them are often overlooked in day to day life. Through the honours system, however, we are able to recognise their achievements and reward them for their public services.
Rather than throwing the honours system out entirely, we must reform it to sure-up its integrity. First and foremost, there needs to be clear public information regarding what people are being honoured for. This will allow us as a society to show what values we stand for and respect, and it will encourage more to replicate these values and behaviours. Effective public information and participation will also mean that corruption, or ‘money for honours’, will be more difficult, as there will be greater public scrutiny regarding appointments.
In addition, to review candidates for honours, we need an expert board that’s fully independent of any political pressure or clear political association. Many members of the current honours committee have close associations with certain politicians and political parties. For example, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case (CVO) is on the honours committee, and he was discovered to have hosted lockdown parties in his offices. His involvement in ‘Partygate’ highlights his close associations with groups of Tory politicians. These friendships and cordialities could influence him to honour certain individuals with like-minded intentions.
Similarly, the ‘Independent Chair’ of the Honours Committee for Parliamentary and Political Services, Stephen Ashley Sherbourne, Baron Sherbourne of Dibsbury (CBE), is a committed Conservative. In theory, he is independent when appointing those who have given great Parliamentary and Political Service, but in reality, especially when it comes to his own recommendations of appointments, separating ideology from ability may be difficult.
To restore the integrity of our honours system, reform is vital. We need a fully independent expert board appointing individuals, and clear public communication to rebuild trust in a system that currently feels antiquated and even corrupt. Until then, providing Tom Moore with the same title as Gavin Williamson is just turning the whole system into a mockery.