8 March 2023

Gray matters: fussing about honours misses the point about who really exercises power


It’s a sign of how successful Rishi Sunak has been at making politics boring that we begin March 2023 in much the way we began March 2022 – discussing Boris Johnson, Sue Gray, and collapsing standards in British public life. This is not a performance that becomes more enjoyable on a second viewing. 

The ex-Prime Minister is making headlines this week for his plans to give Stanley Johnson – his father, ex-MEP, environmentalist, and I’m a Celeb star – a knighthood in his resignation honours’ list. This list is reportedly set to run to 100 names, almost double Theresa May’s or David Cameron’s, both of which were condemned as too lengthy at the time.

To nobody’s surprise, Johnson’s many critics take this as the latest example of his perfidy, self-indulgence, and disregard for constitutional norms.

The trouble for those of us who support the honours system is that stories like this bring the institution into disrepute. True, the 100 or so honours Johnson might bestow are a fraction of the 2000 or so OBEs and other baubles handed out to worthies ever year. Scrapping those because of an unusual Fathers’ Day present would certainly be to throw the baby out with the bath water. 

Nonetheless, stories like these are a free hit for republicans, opponents of the House of Lords, and historical arsonists aiming to erase any reference to our imperial past. Their outrage is wholly out of proportion to the importance of the title itself. Unlike a peerage, a knighthood holds no power. The chivalric abilities of its holder do not affect the government of this country since they are not a legislator. 

The pearl-clutching attached to titles is entirely related to the prestige – the ‘honour’, if you will – we choose to associate with them. Anger at Johnson Sr’s approval lies in voters not thinking he has earnt his place.

The same impulse lies behind criticism of the size or composition of the House of Lords, which is rather more important than knighthoods. That said, the confected frothing over our upper chamber being the world’s second largest ignores that only half of Lords actually participate in debates, and that their role has become more important in the last two decades as the time available in the Commons to debate and challenge legislation has shrunk. But the biggest threat to its future isn’t its size, but the quality of appointments. 

Whether it’s Johnson’s ennobling of Evgeny Lebedev, his friend and the son of a former KGB agent, or Jeremy Corbyn’s ennoblement of Shami Chakrabarti after she presided over a report into anti-Semitism in Labour regarded by many as a whitewash, the fact that peerages are too often seen as perks for the politically well positioned – be they former MPs, donors, or sundry bag-carriers – undermines the good work that their lordships actually do

But while our ermine-clad eminences attract a great deal of attention, if you want to know where power really lies in our constitution then this week’s other noteworthy attempted appointment is far more revealing. A knighthood for Stanley Johnson is scandalous but constitutionally sound and politically meaningless. Sue Gray’s appointment as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff would be equally scandalous, but both constitutionally improper and politically ridiculous.

As Henry Hill argued on these pages, Gray’s putative move to Labour undermines the hallowed apoliticism of our civil service, since she would be taking the job after working at the top of successive Conservative governments and takes that knowledge with her. Though cries of a ‘plot’ are obviously far-fetched, her having contributed to Johnson’s defenestration raises alarm bells for those Conservatives convinced the civil service is working against them, and may do permanent damage to what confidence remains in the government machine. 

Starmer, on the other hand, wants Gray precisely because she is the human embodiment of ‘the Blob’. Oliver Letwin famously said she ‘runs Britain’, that unless she agreed, ‘things just don’t happen’. As Whitehall’s director of propriety and ethics, she had her finger in every pie. Gray was more important than most politicians. But voters would be well within their rights to ask where she had come from.

We get very exercised by resignation honours’ lists. Yet we don’t rant and rave about, for example, the ‘Senior Leadership Committee of the Senior Civil Service’, which can appoint candidates to the top 200 posts in the service without outside permission. The world of titles and ermine is public and unimportant; the machinery of our government is opaque, and vital. 

Civil servants usually only become public figures once they have retired. Gray is unusual in emerging from the shadows so soon. That she has done so – and the context in which she has done it – is of much greater consequence than the latest Johnson family soap opera.

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.