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20th March 2022

It’s not just Gavin Williamson – it’s time for the honours system as we know it to go

Gavin Williamson is another in a long line of knighthood scandals
It’s not just Gavin Williamson – it’s time for the honours system as we know it to go
Photo: Kuhlmann/ MSC @ Wikimedia Commons

“Changing things, with an emphasis on achievement.”

“Improving life for people less able to help themselves.”

“Enhancing Britain’s reputation.”

These are some of the things listed on the government’s website that qualify you for a knighthood. Last night, Boris Johnson added another metric to the list: one “must be kept quiet at all costs,” when he conferred a knighthood upon Gavin Williamson. Gavin Williamson did not one of the things on that list.

“An emphasis on achievement?” In the forest fire that was the government’s response to COVID-19, Gavin Williamson stood in the way of those trying to put it out, idly tossing bits of kindling in the general direction of the blaze. He lurched haplessly from media appearance to media appearance. He managed to confuse the footballer Marcus Rashford with rugby player Maro Itoje, a mistake that frontbench MP Helen Whately was unable to distinctively define as racism or incompetence. Williamson has, not without cause, been branded “the worst education secretary in living memory” – I suppose that at least is a kind of achievement.

“Improving life for people less able to help themselves” can hardly have been the reason William was knighted either. Gavin Williamson presided over the A-Level catastrophe, unable to even ‘remember’ his own. This catastrophe saw pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds hit far worse than those at private schools – the year on year increase of A* and A grades was at least double that of state schools. Against socioeconomic status, further systemic bias was shown, with those in poorer locations punished for where they lived.

And, did he enhance Britain’s reputation as Defence Secretary? Far from it. Gavin Williamson is a national joke, not a national treasure. He caused the breakdown of trade talks between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and China, leaked confidential information about Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network, and had dinner with the wife of one of Putin’s ex-ministers in exchange for a £30k donation to the Tories. In the midst of Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine, he is hardly the man for a knighthood.

So after all this, why did he get a knighthood? The answer lies in his third ministerial position. As Theresa May’s Chief Whip, part of his role included essentially finding blackmail on MPs to ensure their loyalty. Given that current PM Boris Johnson was May’s Foreign Secretary, it seems almost certain that Johnson now needs to ensure Williamson’s loyalty, amid speculation from news outlets such as Novara Media that Williamson “knows where the child support payments are going”. If this is true (and there appears to be no other explanation), then this knighthood is truly indefensible.

But it is not just the knighthood of Gavin Williamson that is inexcusable. The whole honours system and the system of peerages is rotten to the core. Honours persist in using the term Knight “of the British Empire” – as if we should be proud of that. As if the British Empire were not created and maintained through brutality and murder. We continue to celebrate, continue to glorify, the largest demonstration of imperialism and colonialism in history.

It is not just the name – that would be rather an easy fix. It is who is included and why. Harold Wilson’s 1976 list was hugely controversial – according to the Times, it was thought that is “sanctioned the ennobling and knighting of crooked and dubious businessmen” – a list that includes a knighthood for Joseph Kagan, later convicted and imprisoned for tax evasion, and theft from his company. David Cameron nominated two prominent Tory donors who donated large amounts of money to the ‘Remain’ campaign, bought the loyalty of four of his current cabinet with honours, and his wife’s stylist. Tony Blair in 2006 attempted to nominate several men, later known as Tony’s Cronies for peerages, because they had loaned large amounts of money to the Labour Party – like stockbroker Barry Townsley, who loaned £1 million to the Labour Party.

Fundamentally then, the problem lies in that the governing party chooses those to be knighted. Knighthoods, OBEs, and the likes, are donated as favours from those in power. As of this moment, those in power are morally bankrupt, so how can they be trusted to choose those who are upstanding? Clearly, given the PLP’s involvement in these scandals, this is not a partisan problem.

Those who use the House of Lords’ approval system as enough to rectify the problem ignore that the House of Lords is itself part of the problem. Given that the 10 wealthiest members of the House of Lords are worth £9 billion, they are surely not the solution to this problem. This is yet another area where we need a whole new system: a system to honour those who serve others – not further reminders of cronyism and colonialism.

Jacob Hartley

Jacob Hartley

co-Managing Editor (News and Current Affairs)

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