Dubious appointments call Honours system into question

Is it time to do away with Sirs and Dames?

There is nothing like a Dame. Actually, there is, as the male equivalent of Dame is Sir. There are multiple variations on the honours theme, but here in the UK, unless it’s for chivalry, most knighthoods and damehoods are granted for public service, many coming from the world of entertainment. From stage and screen, we get the likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Dame Helen Mirren and Dame Joan Collins, while from music there are Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Dame Shirley Bassey, Sir Ringo Starr (actually it’s Sir Richard Starkey) – the list goes on.

These knighthoods and damehoods are what’s called “honorific”; the recipients get the medal that goes with it but no special privileges. They might get an even warmer welcome at their next personal appearance, or the very best table at the very best restaurants, but many of these superstars are famous enough to get that without a title in front of their name. Some – Sir Michael Caine for example – rarely use their title, and he once said in an interview that “no one has to call me Sir”. On the other hand, some stars insist on their title being used. A young nervous journalist, trying to lighten the atmosphere at the start of an interview with a newly honoured actress, tentatively asked if she might use the star’s first name. “Only if you precede it with Dame,” came the icy reply. 

Many sports stars are also honoured, especially after a successful major world sporting event. As with the entertainment world, such appointments are rarely controversial apart from the question of why some stars get one and others don’t. But then there are the political honours, which can bring about major disquiet. 

In March it was announced that former education secretary Gavin Williamson, sacked by Boris Johnson last year after numerous gaffs and contentious decisions during his time in office, was to be awarded a knighthood as part of the 2022 Special Honours. Among Williamson’s less than glorious moments was the A-levels gradings fiasco during the 2020 Covid crisis, when he at first ignored warnings that a combination of computer algorithm and teacher assessments would be problematic. Then when the clearly unfair marks were in, he stood by the system before a complete U-turn 48 hours later.

Another error was in holding out against calls to extend free school meals in a campaign led by footballer Marcus Rashford. Eventually Williamson held a video meeting, telling the media later he had met with Rashford, when in fact it was a different black sportsman, rugby player, Maro Itoje. For this and more, Williamson is to be knighted, causing opposition politicians and others to ask why.

Then there’s Dame Cressida Dick, made a dame in 2019 and obliged to stand down as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in February after a series of major incidents that rocked confidence in the entire force. Should we, then, abandon the system entirely, or leave these honours to sports stars and entertainers?


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