openDemocracyUK: Opinion

A million have rejected Blair’s knighthood. The establishment doesn’t care

The UK honours system is anything but honourable – it is a system of reward and backslapping for and by an exclusive club of elites

Rory Maclean
7 January 2022, 4.28pm
More than a million people have signed a petition calling for Tony Blair's knighthood to be withdrawn
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The announcement of Tony Blair’s knighthood has provoked a huge backlash that is not confined to the fringes. A million people have called for the honour to be rescinded and a recent poll showed only 14% of the British public thought it was deserved. There is a widespread feeling in the UK that the title should be withdrawn.

The reason for people’s anger is not hard to discern: the British public has not forgotten the Iraq war. This was a dark period in British history, where the government of the time knowingly misled the public, telling us Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when there was no good evidence to support that claim. It also failed to correct untrue stories in the press, including one that ‘revealed’ how Hussein had weapons that could hit a British military base in Cyprus in 45 minutes. The government wanted to go to war and it didn’t let the facts stand in its way.

Those lies provoked some of the largest demonstrations the towns and cities of this country have ever seen. But they were ignored by a government that sent troops into Iraq and was consequently responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Millions in this country had no desire for war but the British government’s subservience to the American war machine and hubris meant pushing ahead anyway. Blair has never sought absolution for these crimes. It is easy to see why so many are inflamed by him now being honoured when there has been no accountability for the Iraq war and all the misery it caused.

But Blair’s new position as a knight companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter – a ceremonial title that is “is in the Queen's gift (i.e. without prime ministerial advice)” – is also evidence of something deeper: the pernicious influence of the landed elite at the heart of the British deep state.

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We know the royal family don’t play the neutral constitutional role they are given, from lobbying for their own tax breaks to their alleged private funding for the defence of Prince Andrew from allegations of sexual assault.

How in a modern democracy is it acceptable for this group of unelected cousins to decide who deserves exaltation?

Our honours system is anything but honourable – it is a system of reward and backslapping for and by the establishment. How can anyone take it seriously when funding the Tory party appears perhaps the most efficient method of assuring yourself an honour? The grandeur of the British state and its centuries-old system of honours is riddled with elitism and sleaze.

This is the prism through which we must understand the elevation of Sir Tony Blair – not the first Labour leader to have joined this exclusive club.

We need an honours system that refuses to cherish the name of the empire and isn’t sold to the highest bidder

The confrontation of capitalism in this country has always been hampered by the establishment’s ability to draw its opponents into the arms of the British state. It is part of Blair’s legacy to the labour movement: a belief that to win we must somehow surrender our desire to alter the state and instead be just the same guiding hand but in red gloves.

This bequeathment to Left politics is playing out in how the new Starmer leadership approaches both economic and social issues. We are in the midst of an energy crisis yet Labour’s policy is barely distinguishable from the Conservatives’. Our shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, falls into the right-wing trap of denying that she is woke.

Blair’s legacy to Labour has been the belief that, to win an election, we must remove the political from our politics, and converge on a ‘centre ground’ that is moving ever further rightwards. This is why he makes such a favourable knight to stand guard for the establishment.

We need a system of honours that refuses to cherish the name of the empire and isn’t sold like a prized lamb to the highest bidder. We need something fitting for the modern age: a way to honour the citizens of this country who serve their families, communities and industries. Our current system taints the achievements of genuine public servants such as Chris Whitty, who provided comfort to the nation where the prime minister failed, when they are listed alongside war criminals, party donors and political hacks.

A new honours system should be democratic. Give the citizens the ability to nominate who they see fit – those that run community services, scientists developing new medicines, long-standing trade unionists – and make it open for people to vote on a national and regional basis. This will remove the cold hands of the British establishment and make receiving an honour something worth celebrating.

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