November 27, 2023 - 3:00pm

You know something is rotten in the British political order when your spouse starts getting marketing emails for a service offering to grease his application for the House of Lords. Not, I hasten to add, because there’s anything wildly unsuitable about my husband as a candidate. But the sheer tawdriness of the “service” offered by Awards Intelligence took me aback. 

A sheaf of media coverage  confirms that it is indeed a real business, started in 2007 by former Bell Pottinger PR Mark Llwellyn-Slade. A regular on Royal Honours news segments, on his own website Llwellyn-Slade describes how he set up the business after realising that awards offer a significant PR opportunity for business clients. It was this realisation that, he recounts, gave him the germ of the idea for a concierge service for obtaining what money can’t buy. 

For those with the stomach for such naked status-peddling, this is an increasingly rich market. As overall living standards have risen over the last half-century, out-competing the Joneses has become increasingly challenging. Before the 1960s, owning a television was a rare luxury: in the 1940s, a black-and-white TV set would cost the real-terms equivalent of about £6,400. Today, a new flatscreen TV costs around £350. 

But as such once-desirable consumer goods have grown ubiquitous, so the competition for what sociologists call positional goods has intensified. The price of access to exclusive schools and desirable postcodes has risen sharply, for example, even as the price of previously exclusive goods such as flatscreen TVs has slumped.

No surprise, then, to find that an industry of commercial fixers has emerged to deal with the administrative hassle involved in bagging the most exclusive positional goods of all. From this perspective, what Awards Intelligence does is not markedly different from the countless services now routinely employed by the sharp-elbowed middle classes, to optimise their offspring’s chances of a sought-after scholarship or fine-tune their Oxbridge application. If you’re posh enough to have all the cars, houses and club memberships you desire, you can now pay a man with a ridiculous moustache to try and bag you a seat in the Lords, as a flex. 

But there is a difference. Membership of Britain’s upper chamber is, at least in theory, about public service, not keeping up with the Joneses. Flogging access on the latter basis is a squalid inversion of its purported role — one made possible by New Labour’s disastrous “modernising” reforms. In theory, expelling the hereditary Lords in favour of appointees was meant to level a baked-in social inequality, while widening the field of public servants from which our upper chamber could be drawn.

But the existence of Awards Intelligence suggests that, in practice, one unintended consequence of that levelling and widening has been the exposure of a previously-protected flank of our already limping body politic, to scavenging status-peddlers from the PR industry. 

Perhaps I shouldn’t feel disgust at these scavengers, auctioning off once-solemn positions of public respect as status baubles for the vain and wealthy. No doubt influence-peddlers have always existed; certainly, there have been enough recent Tory lobbying scandals. But the bare-faced frankness with which such brokerage is now offered confirms loud and clear what most already intuit. 

Our hereditary ruling class may have been at times mad, inbred, or crapulent. But at least they had skin in the game. By contrast, the “modernised” pay-to-play version is clearly innocent of any sense of public service, instead viewing the public as existing in service to them. After two decades of their depredations, no wonder Britain is circling the drain.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.