If honours such as knighthood had more logical reasons for their award, they would be valued much more.
Weather in Britain is a subject of never-ending interest. Commenting on the weather is always an excellent way of starting a conversation. The nature of the comment does not matter much. At this time of year — winter — cold weather is to be expected, but that does not stop us from referring to it as if it were a matter of surprise. “Phew, it's pretty cold today”, or “ It looks as if it's going to be cold” are pellucid statements of the obvious, but we make them as if we are saying something profound.
What is more, our comments rarely show much detachment, or much understanding. For example, we have a narrow view of what is good weather, or bad weather. For the past two years, the rainfall has been low, and as a result some parts of the country are facing quite serious water shortages. The main water supplier in the region in which I live has had to get permission to take water from the rivers, because the reservoirs are low. Nevertheless, when we hear that rain is forecast, our tendency is to describe it as “bad weather”. In the sense that rain may stop people from doing some of the things they want to do, the description is understandable, but because we are facing a shortage of water, rain is not bad weather, but good.
As I write this, snow has fallen in many parts of the country, including the area where I live. On the pavement outside my front door there has been about five centimetres of snow. This has, of course, become a compelling subject of conversation. I suppose that is understandable because in Britain, unlike many other parts of the world, there are quite a lot of variations in the weather pattern. There is, nevertheless, really nothing very remarkable about having snow in winter.
In recent days, another topic, which is far more unusual and remarkable, has provoked a great deal of comment and discussion. I am referring to the removal of the knighthood from Fred Goodwin, who was the Chief Executive of Royal Bank of Scotland at the time of its disastrous collapse. Taking away somebody's knighthood is most unusual, and inevitably, the decision in this case has been of great interest.
The comment by Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail, that he had it coming, as the personification of the greed and reckless corporate spending “of Labour's boom years” was typical of many. Fred Goodwin's lavish lifestyle — private jet, a fleet of luxury cars, palatial office, and a suite at the Savoy Hotel — was sufficient to ensure that few people have shown him much sympathy.
I am no admirer of Fred Goodwin, but I must say I share the unease of those who, while not in any way underestimating his faults and failings, are not happy about the decision. He has not, after all, committed any criminal offence. He became Chief Executive of the bank in 2000 and held that office until 2008. His knighthood was awarded in 2004. Those responsible for recommending it must have known — or certainly should have known — how he was doing his job. It is certainly arguable that he should not have received the knighthood, but he cannot be blamed for that. Removing it in this dramatic way smacks of petty victimisation.
The whole business leads me to think about how the United Kingdom honours system works, and how it might be improved. In my view, a strong case could be made for restricting the major honours, such as knighthoods, to people who have made a major and significant contribution to society — and a contribution which is quite separate from their job. If this were the case, there would be far fewer knighthoods, and they would not go, as they do now, to, for example, senior civil servants. (That is not intended as a criticism of senior civil servants, who serve the country well, but do so because that is their job.)
If we moved in the UK to this kind of system, the far more limited number of knighthoods would mean far more than they do now. They would not simply be a reward for doing one's job well (or in the case of Fred Goodwin, badly).
I doubt if anyone will use the Goodwin experience to introduce a radical change of this kind — but my guess is that if they did it would be well received by many.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org