The ridiculous class system that results from Britain's reluctance to give up feudal practices has been causing an unusual fuss following the reduction of former banker Fred Goodwin from “knight” to knave because he “brought the honours system into disrepute”.
Goodwin was made a “knight” by his queen for services to banking. The feudal “honour” was taken from him by a panel of civil servants. No doubt it would have been unseemly for Windsor herself to have done so. Goodwin's sin was to have mismanaged the Royal Bank of Scotland at great cost to the taxpayers of the UK, a bank named for the loyalty its founders were expected to show towards the monarchy rather than the people.
A knighthood gives no particular benefits except for those of undemocratic spirit who enjoy a meeting with the feudal head of state for the “ennoblement” and being called “Sir” by followers of the class system. The honour that brings real benefits to the holder is that of “lord”. They really can claim to be masters, when the position of “legislator-for-life” goes with the title. This honour cannot easily be removed, even if the “lord” is imprisoned. They can take up their seat in the legislature as soon as freed. Now the government intends to review this. But, of course, the people will still have no say as to who is fit to be a legislator.
The state sets itself up for embarrassment when it believes it is capable of telling its citizens who is worthy of high regard. And there have been plenty of embarrassments. The Forfeiture Committee that decided that Goodwin was fit to be a “knight” no more, has recommended that 35 “honours” be taken back because of crimes or other misconduct. Those honoured by the British state and then “dishonoured” include Robert Mugabe, dictator of Zimbabwe, spy Anthony Blunt and Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian communist tyrant.
Jean Else, a school “superhead” became the first Lord to lose the “honour” in 2006 following accusations of nepotism and financial mismanagement. There are now plans to expel lords who are sent to prison for more than twelve months. MPs, the representatives of the people, already lose their seats if imprisoned for this length of time. There are at least four legislators-for-life who have been or are in prison. Joseph Kagan, now dead, lost the title of “knight” when sent to prison for ten months but continued to be a “lord” and unelected legislator.
Mr. Goodwin's punishment may not be the start of a trend, however. There were cries of pain from others in the financial services industry at the treatment of one of their own. One banker called the loss of the “honour” “cruelty gone mad”. And some MPs were reported to feel “unsettled” by the “tawdry” event that added a dose of reality to the fairy tale land of feudal honours.
The British state's ineptitude in awarding honours is matched by a more serious flaw. The Financial Times commented that the United States had reacted to the financial crisis with aggressive investigation into its causes while “Britain, by contrast, has done almost nothing”. Except, of course, to take a bauble from a banker. In another editorial the newspaper concluded that it would have been “much better if the courts and regulators, rather than he honours forfeiture committee were leading the charge against the pre-crash failings”.