Betting and honors in the UK

The general election in the UK to be held on July 4th has been sidetracked by the election betting brouhaha that has revealed how widespread betting is in that country, as more and more members of parliament are found to have bet on the date of the election. At a time when he should be putting out the final message to voters as to why the Conservatives deserve to continue to govern, the prime minister Rishi Sunak has had to bat down allegations that people close to him have taken advantage of that proximity to place wagers on inside information about the date of the election.

Apart from the question of whether any of them had such information, news reports have also discussed how honors (colloquially referred to as ‘gongs’) seem to be handed out. The UK has an intricate set of honors that are awarded to individuals, ranging from knighthoods to lesser ones like the OBE, MBE, and CBE, and who knows what else (where the labels show their imperial history), as well as peerages of various kinds.

A knighthood is an honour awarded by the British monarch for exceptional national service.
The female equivalent, a damehood, holds the same official title: Grand Cross of the British Empire (GBE).

Among the levels of Honours, there are also CBE, or Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, OBE, or Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and MBE, or Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

I have not studied the question in any great detail but had the vague impression that knighthoods and certain high level peerages required at least some level of merit and were given to those who had either high levels of achievement or contributed something of considerable value to the country, while the lower level ones were for those who had contributed in some smaller way. Some are given almost automatically to people who have held specific posts. (The Labour leader Keir Starmer got his knighthood in 2014 before he entered parliament as an MP in 2015 by virtue of him having been the head of the Crown Prosecution Service and Director of Public Prosecutions.)

The prime minister can recommend honors every New Year and on the king’s birthday in June. In addition, they can recommend honors whenever they dissolve parliament prior to a general election and also when they resign as prime minister. Those might be given to political hacks and cronies and donors to the party in power. Even Liz Truss, who will be remembered forever as having the dubious honor of serving the shortest tenure of any modern prime minister (just 49 days) and could not outlast a lettuce, dished out honors to aides and advisers on leaving, including supportive MPs and donors.

Now a row has erupted over some of the honors that Sunak seeks to dispense. The row shows that even knighthoods and peerages seem to be given in the absence of any significant contributions.

A Conservative cabinet minister who admitted placing three bets on the date of the general election is in line for a peerage as part of Rishi Sunak’s final honours list, the Observer has been told.

Alister Jack, the Scottish secretary who stood down as an MP when the election was called, had been considered for inclusion in a dissolution honours list compiled in recent weeks, according to sources familiar with the process. The list is set to be published soon after Thursday’s vote.

Last week, Jack denied BBC reports that he had won £2,100 on an election bet, suggesting he had been joking about the idea. He later released a statement saying he had “not breached any gambling rules”.

The cabinet minister said in March he had placed two bets of £5 each for an election to be held in May and June respectively.

He placed a £20 bet in April at odds of 5 to 1 that an election would be held between July and September.

These bets are for paltry amounts for people in such a socio-economic class, which suggests that this kind of gambling is out of habit rather than as a way of trying to get rich. But the consequences for some are serious.

The scandal began when the Guardian revealed that Craig Williams, Sunak’s parliamentary aide, was under investigation by the ­commission for placing a £100 bet that the election would be in July, three days before it was announced.

Williams is said to have been considered for a knighthood before the row emerged, but has since been removed from the deliberations.

Neither the article nor his Wikipedia page suggest that the 39-year old Williams has ever done anything in his life that might make him seem worthy of a knighthood, assuming that some merit is involved and not just because one is a lackey of the prime minister. He was accused of sleeping in parliament, though, which may count for something.

People in the UK seem to value these honors highly, although there are a few who reject them as relics of empire and a feudal mindset. The people who like them sometimes have with their letterheads or signature lines listing all of them, including the institution that issued them, sometimes extending to more than one row of text. During the period of the British empire, the practice extended to the colonies with people in those countries even listing their undergraduate and graduate degrees and the university from which they got them. (There is an apocryphal story about an Indian who, during British colonial times, had in his job application after his signature the words ‘B. A. (Calcutta, failed)’. It may not be entirely a joke since even attending university when the bar for entrance is quite high could be considered a mark of distinction, since one can fail to get a degree for non-academic reasons.) This practice of thrusting one’s honors in people’s faces would be seen as somewhat gauche in the US.

I wonder if there is concern in the UK among those who value these honors that giving knighthoods and the like to people like Williams, whose only distinction seems to be proximity is some way to the prime minister, doesn’t diminish their value.


  1. Holms says

    Even Liz Truss, who will be remembered forever as having the dubious honor of serving the shortest tenure of any modern prime minister (just 49 days) and could not outlast a lettuce

    I don’t know of any lettuce lasting longer than 49 days outside of a freezer. Didn’t they start that competition at something like week 6 of her tenure?

    The lettuce cheated.

  2. birgerjohansson says

    The honors inflation from The Boris onwards reminds me of the rain of field marshal batons in Germany under another failed government.

    Fun fact. Polls give a LOT of tory MPs a lead of less than 5%. We could start betting on which ones that will be sent packing.

  3. John Morales says

    Not all honours.

    From the 18th century, the Sovereign made their choices on the advice of the Government. In 1946, with the agreement of Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Opposition Leader Winston Churchill, membership of Great Britain’s highest ranking orders of chivalry (the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Thistle and the dormant Order of St Patrick) became a personal gift of the Sovereign once again.[17] Thus, the Sovereign personally selects Knights and Ladies Companion of the Garter, without political influence.[24] Appointments are typically announced on Saint George’s Day (23 April).[17]


    BTW, they’re ‘honours’, not ‘honors’ — ‘cos they’re for the Brits.

  4. dangerousbeans says

    I think you’ll find nepotism is the traditional way to get titles. The idea you actually have to earn them is rather new 😛

  5. KG says

    A Martian seeing the array of medals on King Charles’ coat at the D-Day commemorations would have concluded that he must be the bravest man in history!

  6. birgerjohansson says

    If Britain did not run on nepotism it wouldn’t be Britain anymore. And in WWII Soviet Union the closer you were to the staff, the more medals you got. Some even got them retroactively, like Leonid Breszhnev.

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