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On accepting knighthoods and gongs

One twice-yearly spectacle I never look forward to is the New Year’s and Birthday Honours List, the occasion where the Queen, at the behest of the establishment, dishes out awards for services rendered. I don’t look forward to it because, inevitably, someone ostensibly on the left picks up a knighthood and/or a gong. And so it has happened today. The GMB general secretary from this day forth shall be known as Sir Paul Kenny, and feminist author and campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez shall now be styled with an OBE after her name. As someone whose republicanism is bone deep, I find this state of affairs appalling and depressing.

Paul Kenny has been and remains an excellent general secretary of his trade union. The GMB has grown under his leadership and possesses a no-nonsense attitude to organising and disputes. Strategic and intelligent, trade unions could do with more leaders like him. Caroline Criado-Perez has made waves in recent years, firstly as the figurehead for the high-profile campaign to get women on bank notes, latterly as the target of rape and death threats, and has since made a name as one of Britain’s best-known young feminists.

In their defence, Paul says:

I have accepted this as recognition of the crucial role trade unions play in society. The honour is for every trade unionist trying to make the world a better place. We get denigrated for standing up against exploitation and bullying, so I’m delighted our role is finally being recognised – and my mum would have been chuffed to bits.”

I wonder if Paul would be intensely relaxed if, time after time, GMB full-time convenors consistently received ‘employee of the year‘ awards from the firms they organise in? Likewise, Caroline tweeted that “we’re taking feminism all the way to the queen“. Not for the first time – Bea Campbell got there before her.

This, however, does not necessarily reflect on their characters – more so the weaknesses of their politics. Paul’s move typifies a common enough political trend among trade unionists, that of economism. As the labour movement is formally split into its industrial and political wings, this conditions the political horizons of not a few trade union members. Plenty have been the times I’ve heard union militants discuss the contempt with which they held their bosses, the tricks and the tactics they used to pull off good wins for the members, the effective actions that they’ve led. I’ve also seen those same people get misty eyed when it comes to the Queen and the royals – I recall one comrade telling me how she found criticism of the Queen upsetting “because she can’t answer back“. But this is possible because of the absolute separation between the industrial and the political. Being a workplace militant may tend toward but is no guarantee of political radicalism, your concern is the relation between worker and boss, not voters and government.

As Paul has authored an effective political strategy inside the Labour party, I can’t believe he’s so politically naive to lapse into economism, even if his statement smacks of it. But what his honour might do, as he also implies, is give trade unionism some legitimacy in the eyes of the many millions of people who do, unfortunately, cherish the monarchy and all its works.

If Paul ever falls under the press spotlight for carrying out his role, the knighthood might armour him as he jousts before the court of public opinion. On the other hand, this has to be balanced out by the extent to which the functioning of the GMB lay apparatus, in which there will be disproportionate numbers of activists who think as I do, who will have had their confidence dented in him. How can you trust someone to stick it to the bosses when those same bosses have condescended to award him?

In Caroline’s case, it’s notable that the targets of her campaigning have been peripheral “easy wins”. Yes, as she notes this morning, it is absurd to have gender normative bean bags. It is important to highlight how women’s lives are blighted by everyday sexism, how sex crimes against women are belittled, and the myriad other ways women are put in their place. But the weakness of her politics is typified by her debut book, Do It Like a Woman. As the blurb puts it:

we meet the first woman to cross the Antarctic alone; we meet a female fighter pilot in Afghanistan; we meet a climate change activist who scaled new heights; we meet a Chilean revolutionary turned politician; we meet the Russian punks who rocked out against Putin; and we meet the Iranian journalist who dared to uncover her hair.”

Inspiring stories. Important stories. Yet where does power come into this? Where are the linkages between the shit women have to deal with and the social system that rests on private property and economic exploitation? It’s absent.

For much the same reasons as Paul, her gong can be advantageous from the standpoint of her campaigning activity. Being in receipt of an establishment sacrament may open up new audiences to her that were closed previously. And it could close down others. In future upwellings of feminist radicalism, is it likely those future comrades are going to listen to an OBE-festooned activist? Or, as is more likely, is Caroline destined to be an establishment face they will wish to kick against?

And lastly, here’s another problem I suspect neither have thought about. By accepting their awards they’re conferring legitimacy on a set up that is fundamentally against the interests of the overwhelming majority of people. If it’s legitimate for trade unionists and feminists to take something, then just perhaps the whole shebang isn’t as bad as all that. Worse, they are also using their records to legitimise the slew of Tory donors also titled … for their services to the Tory party.

Lest we forget, like our friends here, the monarchy is an integral part of a system that alibis all the things Paul and Caroline are against. It normalises the idea some should rule as of birthright, that there are better classes of people, that there are some entitled to greater wealth than others. The monarchy is anti-democratic because of the reserve powers our constitution conveys upon it. For anyone who campaigns for equality and social justice, be it in the workers’ movement or the women’s movement, it’s time the monarchical blinkers were removed. It is not our friend, and we should not accept its gifts.

8 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    If Labour’s greatest Prime Minister can be an earl, why can’t a trade unionist be a knight?

  2. Chris says:

    Criado-Perez, it must be said, is not someone socialists should pay attention to. She is a retailer of vacuous lifestyle politics and shrill accusations of sexism.

  3. David Pavett says:

    I agree that the system of honours stinks of ruling class patronage. It is one of the many mechanisms of class society to draw the sting from those who might otherwise be opposed to it. It co-opts and adopts its potential enemies by making them feel part of the club. The appropriate response to this embrace of the ruling class was given by the historian R H Tawney who declined the offer of a peerage saying “What harm have I ever done to the Labour Party”. Would that all Labour movement activists demonstrated the same clarity of thought!

    Very far from such clarity is Paul Kenny’s absurd claim that with this honour the role of all trade unionists “is finally being recognised”. Only a disconcerting suspension if thought makes such a claim possible. I hope that Sir Paul notes the treatment of trade unionists in the right-wing press for the next six months to check the value of his claim about the value of trade union work “finally being recognised” but I doubt that he will.

    1. Robert says:

      What I think many of the Union members will be think payment is being made.

  4. If we ever have a serious debate on what went wrong with NEw Labour, one of the elements will have to be the reform of the honours system. Twenty years ago People’s Peers were on the agenda.

    I am just editing a review of the book by Lord Adonis. The fact that a right wing journalist not only becomes a Lord but manufactures two of the greatest disasters in political history, the academy school project and the HS2 high speed train, tells you all you need to know about the abuse of power and lack of democracy in the system. But does the Left notice this?

    Trevor Fisher

  5. James Martin says:

    Kenny joins a very long list of other union bureaucrats who have been paid for and made safe by the establishment, and who then accepts his reward (including of course Will Thorne), although as a GMB member myself while it doesn’t surprise me it still angers me to the core that he would attempt to justify his betrayal in such a way rather than be honest and slink off to have a sweet sherry with his new Tory chums.

    Of course if the GMB was as effective as Kenny appears to believe then it wouldn’t be losing members hand over fist as cuts, redundancies and privatisation effects the jobs of thousands of GMB public sector members without a fight.

    1. Robert says:

      I’m to far gone to give a toss.

      1. AndyP says:

        Just for a point of clarity to James Marting, the GMB are not losing members hand over fist and are actualy one of the few growing trade unions in the country, a trend that has now been going on for almost a decade. Obviously you are within your rights to make your point but it would be helpful to all if you got your facts rights first.

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