A new year and another new New Year’s Honours List… but the same old broken, class-ridden, often corrupt way of acknowledging personal contribution to the nation.
The honours system is now so dishonoured it’s almost beyond parody. Sure, some high-profile achievements get recognised (Olympic winners and scientists) and lots of people who do great work in the community get a gong to say well done, but who you are and what rank you have in society still determines what you get, many honours are awarded as a salary perk depending on your job and others are almost certainly bought (with or without collusion by Royals themselves).
Last week, in the wake of its continuing allegations that Prince Charles’ staff were complicit in dishing out honours, the Sunday Times published its own New Year’s honours list. It was a stab at honouring those who have served the nation in ways deserving of recognition – one based on pure merit, albeit from the paper’s own view point.
The Sunday Times’ theme deserves a national focus because the time has long since passed when the honours system has required a top to toe revamp. Shrouded in mystery and nudges and winks, despite recent attempts to make it more transparent, the current system continues to reek of the dark hand of privilege and undue favour.
High-profile or ‘important’ people become Knights and Dames, the charity-worker who has helped the poor and homeless for 25 years gets an OBE. The top brass in the Forces gets the top honours, the lady who has volunteered at the local hospital for decades gets an MBE.
‘Twas ever thus… even in 1966 Alf Ramsey the manager of the England World Cup winning team was knighted while Bobby Moore who actually played and captained got an OBE. And other honours were only dished out to the rest of the players years later.
Every year, including this time, there are people on the list and you really have to wonder why, or question how they have deserved a ‘top’ honour. Does simply being a TV star for x years really mean they deserve a Dame of Knighthood? Does being a big philanthropist mean you qualify for a big gong? Isn’t philanthropy meant to be an unsung action (though try telling selfie snapper Dominic Raab that this Christmas!).
Getting a national honour shouldn’t rely on a person’s celebrity or their ‘status’ in the Forces or anywhere else.
To criticize the current system is not unpatriotic or specifically anti-Royal. There ought to be a system of recognising those who have served the nation beyond the norm but it should be equitable, fair, be seen to be fair, fully transparent and run completely free of influence by the Government of the day.
It also should be simple to understand, not over-complicated as it is now with so many obscure tittles and gongs for this or that.
You would hope a progressive UK Government would address the honours issue sooner rather than later but who knows. Like proportional representation, reform of the House of Lords… the list is very long… we may have to wait for a few more New Years yet.
The Guardian's Simon Jenkins Agrees...
A couple of days after this post Simon Jenkins was equally scathing about the Honours System in The Guardian.
Questioning a Knighthood for Tony Blair in the latest Honours List, Jenkins wrote:
"More evidence, if it were needed, that our entire “honours” system and its associated nomenclature is an outdated mess. Britain has inherited an honours system that, like its Church of England and parliament itself, is shrouded in past fashion and fancy language that it seems incapable of reforming. Honours are divided between people who get them through their job, people who merit them and people who buy them. The cynicism of Boris Johnson’s (and Cameron’s) purchased honours has brought the House of Lords to a new low. I can think of no other democracy where membership of its parliament is so brazenly up for sale.
It is not good enough to say it does not matter much. If it is to serve as the nation’s comment on the performance of public figures, a system of honours should convey meaning, not time-serving.
In a climate of sleaze and corruption, the case is overwhelming for a commission to clean up and modernise the hierarchy of national awards. Parliament, politics and Downing Street should have nothing to do with it. We can eliminate archaic references to empires, saints, baths, garters and chivalry. We can stick to orders of merit.
As for prime ministers, their reward is best kept in heaven, or at least confined to the lucrative lecture circuit and memoir catalogue. It is there that the nation can best express its appreciation of their work."