The British Honours System: A Critique

January 18, 2019

I cringe every time the latest Honours are announced. This occurs twice a year. In total 1,350 of these accolades are handled out to ‘recognise merit in terms of achievement or service’. At best described as a peculiarly British arrangement where there are several levels of award from a suffix that you cam affix to the front of your name through to a large number of prefixes that you can tag onto your surname. These awards are handed out to Brits and other members of the Commonwealth or we can give ‘honorary’ awards to citizens of other nations. 

Their compilation is by a couple of committees and then the Queen advises the lucky winners of their prize officially on certain dates. If you get the highest accolade then Her Majesty or delegates invite you to Buckingham Palace where you kneel; the sword is tapped on your shoulder and you get to discuss briefly the weather and her nag’s prospects at Epsom in the afternoon racing.

The problem is about who gets these awards. It seems a right for politicians, sportsmen, senior soldiers, ancient rock stars, national treasures in terms of acting, radio or TV personalities, currently overpaid ‘captains of industry’ and probably a whole selection of people who’ve spent about a decade canvassing for one (or putting money into good causes to gain ‘credits’).

This nonsense started in 1348 and may explain some of the archaic titles such as The Order Of The Garter. In fact the most common Honours are Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE), Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) and Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. (MBE). The very reference to the British Empire is not only obsolete but frankly places it in a Netflix period drama.

If it is for service or achievement then why by heading a Government Department as a civil servant do you get a gong? You’re bewilderingly well paid, live a cloistered and privileged life and have another career of being a non-exec on all sorts of Boards (after you take your eye wateringly generous pension). Okay, you can do your job and climbed to the top of the ‘slippery pole’ but why should you get a bauble?

Captains of industry have tenures, sometimes long and sometimes short, where talent, good luck and timing enables them to earn £millions and have privilege in any activity they may want to participate in. After all this recognition they eventually get a Knighthood so that they can join their other lucky and lofty mates. A risk, of course, is that after your bank contributes to a global financial collapse: they might ask for it back as happened to luminaries at two UK banks. 

The celebrity strain is beyond a joke. This New Year saw Michael Palin and Twiggy get Knighted or made a Dame. Now to say anything derogatory about these two is akin to feeding a playful labrador puppy into a wood saw… but come on! Twiggy got the Honour for her services to fashion, the arts and charity? Google tells me that she has involvement with 13 charities. Well done and thank you but how many folk do you know who are devoting over 10 hours volunteering or caring where they get no money, no support and certainly a lot less than appreciation? I know a few.

If these celebrities make a mockery of the pecking order of worthiness then don’t start me on footballers, actors or musicians. It seems that the first hiring question for their future PR agency is what will you do to accelerate my acquisition of an Honour? “My qualifications are that I’m over 50 years old, have convictions for drugs and have mainly led a dysfunctional life that has enabled tabloid newspapers to have a splendid time telling people about me. I am also hopelessly rich, entitled and hob nob with junior Royals. However, I’ve lent my name to a few charities, I fit in a couple of functions a year and my PA has me sign lots of T shirt. In addition I can fit in a gig for free once in a blue moon. Surely that’s worth a Knighthood for my export sales and high profile?”

A mediocre political career on the back benches can get you a Knighthood if you vote regularly with the Government, say nice things about the leadership when required and retire when the tap comes on the shoulder to release your safe seat to an acolyte of the ruling junta.

Somewhere down the list with the junior accolades are ladies who’ve devoted many days a month to teaching disabled children to ride a horse or given 50 years of service to being a lollipop lady on a dangerous road in rain and snow. I love these folk and we walk in their shadows. Neither do I have a problem with awards of distinction such as bravery. I’m humbled to think what soldiers do on battlefields, who isn’t? 

I know a few men who’ve had an Honour. Were they worth it? Debatable but I do know one who spent a lot of time and effort trying to get the highest award (unsuccessfully). There are many who’ve turned down the offer when they’ve been asked if they want one. I’m happy with that but a few have gone out of their way to demonstrate their virtue signalling by declining the Honour – frankly, that’s worse than accepting it.

Due to political patronage and the desire to create ‘feel good’ on the front page of The Daily Mail twice a year this antique Byzantine practise will continue with some occasionally ‘sold’ for a donation to a political party. And with all this we sneer at corrupt practices in Asia and Africa.

Lastly, there are some monumental cock ups. Lovelies who’ve been awarded an Honour include Mussolini, Ceausescu, Mugabe, paedophile Jimmy Savile and traitor Anthony Blunt. I suspect there are a few current holders who glance nervously over their shoulder at the Serious Fraud Office and or some under-age sex investigation policemen.

Don’t get me started on the award of honorary degrees…

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