I'm startled to find myself in agreement with Alastair Campbell, spin-doctor turned diarist, whom I'd never previously considered a kindred spirit.
Hearing of Armando Iannucci's acceptance of an OBE, Campbell – whom Iannucci lampooned mercilessly in the person of the explosive, expletive Malcolm Tucker in the sitcom The Thick of It – accused him of joining the very establishment he took such pleasure in deriding. "Malcolm Tucker and I do not approve of honours system," he added. Neither do I, and nor should Iannucci, who appears to be conducting a masterclass in having one's cake and eating it.
Although he has made a career, and a lucrative income, from his utter lack of deference, Iannucci claims it is simply "good manners" to accept any award offered. He assures us that it will not blunt his satirical talons as he continues to flay the powers that be. I'm afraid, though, that he will now be seen as declawed, or neutered, his savagery tainted by a whiff of hypocrisy. After all, how can a writer be splentically anti-establishment on the page, yet accept its baubles in real life? It suggests the rage behind his humour is synthetic rather than bone-deep, opportunistic rather than visceral. It doesn't make it less clever, but it does hint it may be no more than an act.
Iannucci, however, is only the most striking case in point. Nobody should accept these honours. Whether it's Sarah Burton who designed Kate Middleton's wedding dress (OBE), former presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament George Reid (knighthood) or journalist Alexander Chancellor (CBE), these gongs ought firmly to be refused. Do they add to the respect or awe these individuals have already earned? Not in my eyes they don't – sometimes quite the reverse. When a list was published a while ago of those who had refused them I was initially impressed that Alfred Hitchcock had turned down a CBE. When it transpired that he was simply holding out for something grander, which he finally got in the form of a Sir, my respect for him diminished. That William Golding actively lobbied for a knighthood was even more disillusioning. Of all people, writers and actors and artists and, dare I say it, journalists should stand apart from the establishment, so they can see it, and comment on it, with a clear head and unsullied conscience. They can dress up their reasons for refusing as drolly as Francis Bacon, who claimed "they were so ageing", but a badge of royal or political endorsement should never hang on an artist's wall. Andrew Neil, who over the years has made it his business to make the establishment choke on its kippers, puts it succinctly: journalists, he says, should never accept honours "from people we are supposed to be holding to account".
That creed stands true for everyone. To accept a gift or talisman from the authorities is not just to dull one's critical faculties, but to give them the power of conferring social status on you. Even Tony Blair, who in theory disapproved of the system, kept it, according to Campbell, because he thought it "made a lot of people very happy". But what about those of us who feel queasy as the titles rain down, like pennies tossed to the mob out of their limos by the ruling classes? These labels have no place in a democratic society, where we are all supposed to be equal. This hierarchy of rewards and deference is an anachronism as well as an abomination. It harks back centuries to an era of cruel social apartheid, when Britain was divided into a nation of haves and have nots, and when the royal seal of approval could mean the difference between life and death, between penury and generations of unearned inherited wealth.
Today, the significance of such honours is meant to be purely symbolic. Of course, it is much more than that, because in their wake come further preferments, more privileges, greater power. It is both amusing and dispiriting that these awards turn otherwise sensible and often admirable citizens into human Christmas trees. Were it a condition of accepting these awards that they be hung from the recipient's forelock, I wonder how many would cavil? Very few, I'm afraid.
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