Wrong to shred Fred's Honour

By Geoffrey Alderman, February 23, 2012

I am not an economist. I do not know whether the current crisis from which this country is suffering really is the fault of the banking fraternity rather than (as some of my economist friends insist) an inevitable phase of an equally predictable economic "cycle". But there seems to be general agreement that a high degree of banking recklessness - wanton gambling - added fuel to the fire even if it did not start the blaze.

Now the knives are out for those deemed particularly reckless. Frederick Anderson Goodwin, the former head of the Royal Bank of Scotland, has been an early victim of this witch-hunt. In 2004 Goodwin was knighted for "services to banking". But four years later RBS posted a deficit of £24.1 billion - the largest annual loss in British corporate history. Goodwin resigned but resisted pressure to forgo his pension, which was a contractual right. On February 1 he was stripped of his knighthood.

Now there is talk of another member of the banking fraternity - Sir Maurice Victor Blank, the former head of the Lloyds Banking Group (and also chairman of UJS Hillel) - suffering the same fate.

I despise the Honours system. If an Honour were ever offered to me (improbable, I agree) you can rest assured that I would refuse it. The addiction to Honours has corrupted many a fine profession. In the university world it has fostered a culture of compliance among vice-chancellors that has turned many, if not most, into government cheerleaders, preoccupied not with defending the sector's autonomy but with saying and doing whatever pleases Downing Street.

But I also despise the spiteful and the malicious. And it seems to me that the fate that has befallen Goodwin, and which is being urged upon Sir Victor, falls squarely into the category of malice and spite.

Given that we have an Honours system, and that the Queen can confer the prefix "Sir" or "Dame" upon selected individuals, I accept that in certain circumstances an Honour might and even should be revoked. It has long been accepted that the commission of a serious criminal offence could lead to the stripping of an Honour. But Goodwin has no criminal record. Nor has Sir Victor. Goodwin's knighthood was conferred, in 2004, in respect of his achievements to that date. There was no stipulation as to his future conduct.

You can rest assured that I would refuse an Honour

I recall the furore, some 30 years ago, that surrounded the revelation that the distinguished art historian Sir Anthony Blunt had been a Soviet spy. He was never prosecuted. But he was stripped on his knighthood (conferred in 1956) and resigned from (or was thrown out of) various learned societies. The question arose of his Emeritus professorship of the University of London, where he had been director of the Courtauld Institute. The university's establishment, ever anxious to please the vindictive Thatcher, pressed for Blunt to be stripped of the title. I argued passionately against this, pointing out that whatever we may have thought of Blunt's unforgiveable treachery the professorial title had been conferred in respect of his substantial academic achievements, which no one could deny. My argument won the day.

The same cruel animus can be seen at work whenever the name of Louis Jacobs comes up in Orthodox circles. Many of my Orthodox acquaintances simply refuse to acknowledge that Jacobs was possessed of a highly reputable rabbinical diploma (granted by the renowned rabbi Moses Segal, principal of Manchester Yeshivah), and that this qualification was never revoked. To refer to Jacobs as "Mr" or even as just "Dr", without adding the Orthodox rabbinical title which he carried with him to the grave is intentionally insulting, and small-minded into the bargain.

Whether Sir Victor - any more than Goodwin - deserved the knighthood in the first place is not for me to say. What I do feel is that the economic stress that British society is experiencing has revealed a very ugly underside, characterised by a politics of jealousy informed by a philosophy of envy. Of course failure should not be rewarded. Of course bonuses should be proportional to success. But failure itself is a concomitant of success. In these trying times a little humility on all our parts would not be out of place.

Last updated: 11:59am, February 23 2012