By Richard Heller
Poor old David Beckham. He would have been spared all his recent embarrassment over his bid for a knighthood if honours were sold open and honestly by the Treasury instead of under the counter by politicians.
There is plenty of precedent for this. The early Stuart monarchs actually forced wealthy subjects to be knighted for a fee until Parliament stopped them. James I revived the ancient title of baronet to create hereditary knighthoods. He turned them into a cash cow: each new baronet had to hand over £1,095, a huge sum at the time, and enough to support thirty soldiers for three years. (The last baronet to be created was Sir Denis Thatcher but he was not asked to contribute.)
Several Popes set up orders of knighthood and gave out other honours to finance the Crusades or the protection of pilgrims to the Holy Land. Several of these survive (Rupert Murdoch, of all people acquired a Papal knighthood in 1998 after donating money to Catholic education.) If Beckham still feels aggrieved at his treatment in this country he might like to know that Pope Francis is a big soccer fan (his favourite team in his native Argentina is appropriately called the Saints).
Of course, for centuries the Church was astute enough to sell honours in the next life as well as the current one, raising a goodly income from pardons and indulgences and persuading many nervous rich people to set up chantries before their death to speed their passage to heaven.
Queen Victoria's first prime minister and mentor, Lord Melbourne, once said that he liked his Order of the Garter "because there's no demm'd merit in it." It would give a boost to the exchequer to create a new Order on the same basis. There would be no pretence that recipients had done anything special for the country, they would simply hand over cash to the Treasury. The Order could have ranks, rising up to knighthood or even peerage. The Upper House is already too crowded but one could make space for new members by ejecting all the current ones who had made a substantial donation to a political party. In this way, one would replace peers who had paid politicians for their place with benefactors of the whole country.
The Treasury might also sell peerages on a day ticket. Buyers would be people who wanted to give the country a piece of their mind. Second-class ticketholders could turn up at the Lords on a day when it was debating something they cared about and have a speech read into the record. First-class "day peers" could actually take part in the debate – delivering a speech and intervening (politely) in those of other peers. Apart from raising public funds, this would give a new democratic impulse to the place.
A new system of honours-for-cash might be called the Goodly Order of National Gratitude (so that recipients would receive a GONG). In each rank, recipients would get a handsome medal at an investiture ceremony and letters after their name. As a boost to our exports, this Order would be open to foreigners, but obvious money-launderers should be given a new Order of the Bath. To maximise the revenue to the exchequer, recipients for a modest additional fee could compose their own citation of 100 words or less.
More important, the number of awards in each rank would be fixed each year. Would-be recipients would have to make sealed bids, and they would be allowed to bid once and once only during their lifetimes. The Order would then be filled in descending order of bids. This would obviously encourage generous offers to the Treasury – think of the fury of would-be knights and dames who had to settle for being mere commanders because they had undervalued the honours market.
The additional public revenue from these honours might be shown in the national accounts as a new form of VAT – Vanity Added Tax.
Would the Queen be embarrassed to hand out honours for cash alone? During her long reign, the Queen has always been a real trouper. She has imperturbably endured all manner of embarrassments for the sake of her people.
She has watched countless displays of ghastly folk dancing and pretended to enjoy them all. She was pawed by the fat crook Robert Maxwell at the Commonwealth Games in 1986. At the beginning of each parliament she writes a pleading letter to Peter Mandelson begging him to turn up to the House of Lords and calling him "right trusty and well-beloved", all without a twitch of the royal lips. For goodness sake, she has just been asked to host Donald Trump.
After these experiences, it would not be asking too much for her to say "Arise, Sir David" if the poor fish had paid enough to secure a knighthood.
Richard Heller is an author and journalist. He was formerly chief of staff to Denis Healey. His latest book (with Peter Oborne) is White On Green celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket.
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