What Labour should do about honours

5th January, 2013 12:21 pm

The publication of the 2013 New Year’s Honours List should remind us of the unsatisfactory character of the honours industry.  It’s time to consider what the next Labour government could usefully do about it.

The latest list issued by the Cabinet Office, covers 109 pages, not including various separate lists: e.g. the diplomatic, military, police and fire service lists and the awards given personally by the Queen, not acting on ministers’ advice.  According to the Cabinet Office website, 1,068 awards were of the BEM (286), MBE (535) and OBE (247).  72% were for “outstanding work”, voluntary or paid, in recipients’ communities.  572 awards went to women (47%), 5% to ethnic minorities. This was one of the two annual lists:  so multiply everything by two for the annual rate.

Those 286 British Empire Medallists (BEM) are not members of the Order of the British Empire, but  “affiliated with the Order“, whatever that might mean. The British Empire Medal was discontinued in 1993, but revived in 2012 with 293 BEMs for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Presumably someone thought that was a good idea at the time.

Obviously the whole thing is out of hand.  Most high awards are for getting near or to the top of the recipients’ organisations or sectors — in other words, for success in their jobs.  These people – top bankers, industrialists, civil servants and diplomats, sportsmen and sportswomen,  conductors and actors — are already rewarded by promotions, generous and rising salaries, prize money or bonuses, high status in their professions and sometimes national or international fame.  An honour is just icing on an already fairly rich cake.  What does Andy Murray’s derisory OBE add to his Olympic gold medal and Grand Slam victory?

The problem boils down to the demands of precedent.  If the Chairmen of The British Pin Company Ltd have always been knighted, the new boss, Mr J Doe, will automatically expect in due course to feel the tap of the Queen’s sword on his shoulder, arising from his knees as Sir John.  If he remains plain Mr Doe, questions will be asked:  is there a skeleton in old John’s cupboard? How has he blotted his copybook? Yet poor Mr Doe is probably just one victim of a largely arbitrary and capricious system.  Similarly, if British ambassadors to Tsetseland have invariably been knights, but the latest appointee remains stubbornly Mister, the Tsetselanders will feel short-changed: is their country no longer regarded in London as sufficiently important to warrant a Sir?  Complaints will reach Whitehall and the Palace,   ministerial and minor royal visitors to Tsetseland will be button-holed.  There will be open sympathy for the supposedly humiliated ambassador.  Eventually, someone in London will ask why such complaints should be endured when there’s an easy and extremely cheap solution available:  give the fellow a K, for God’s sake, whether he wants it or not!*

The system has many defects. It is arbitrary and capricious; the imperative of precedents makes the lists ever longer and more inconsistent (look at the awards to sportsmen and sportswomen, where proliferation has inflicted some unhappy anomalies). It is class-based: ranks within each Order correspond broadly to social status, further sharpening social division. It’s embarrassing: few people are confident about addressing someone with a ‘Sir’ attached to his name, in writing or face-to-face (‘Dames’, with their pantomime undertones, are even more problematic). The system combines two completely different categories of honorands:  those at or near the top of their professions,  and others who have rendered devoted service to their communities without much, if any, recognition or reward.

All this can be put right, but only by reforms radical enough to put the wind up our obsessively centrist political parties.  A party of the real centre-left – Labour, perhaps? – might, though, consider a six-point programme on these lines:

1.  No-one should be honoured for success in the job for which they are paid or in their primary activity;  there are plenty of other ways to recognise success — promotions, high salaries, bonuses or prize money, status and fame.

2.  Honours should recognise exceptional service to the recipient’s community, local, regional, national or international, beyond the demands of the person’s job, indeed generally irrelevant to it, and only where no other form of reward or recognition is available.

3.  With very few defined exceptions, no more knighthoods or damehoods should be awarded. These should be given only to men and women of exceptional distinction, no longer active in their former fields, whose achievements have significantly benefited the country. There must be no question of a knighthood for any person whose policies and judgements in their working lives could possibly have been corruptly influenced by hope of a state honour then or later.

4. Each Order should have only one rank, indicating ‘membership’: no more distinctions between holders of the MBE, OBE, CBE, KBE, DBE and GBE, or their equivalents.  There should be no implied conditions for membership such as adherence to a specific church or religion or other discrimination.  The number of Orders should be reduced to no more than three.

5.  The Order of the British Empire is manifestly long overdue for renaming or burial. The mysterious revival of the British Empire Medal is surplus to requirements.

6.  Existing specialised honours, such as those in the personal gift of the monarch or awarded to the military, police and fire services, could remain – but without any more knights or dames.

*Full disclosure: some may think, or say, that I’m a fine one to make such suggestions, like someone already aboard calling for the ladder to be pulled up behind him.  To such critics I can only reply that it is largely because of my own banal experience in the field that I want to see it reformed.

This is an abbreviated version of a fuller blog post here.

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  • Hardly the most important thing to be concerned with. Why pick fights (which would happen if you try to do the above) over something that doesn’t actually help people.

    Focus on important matters, like improving quality of life for the poor, sick, old, disabled, which the current Government are doing nothing about.

    Meddling with the honours system won’t help anyone and just cause resentment from certain groups and cause further confusion with the public.

    Priorities need to be got right….changing honours is surely far from the top of the list.

    • brianbarder

      I have never suggested that the changes I advocate are “the most important thing to be concerned with” or “top of the list of priorities”. Obviously there are many far more urgent and important things that need to be done, and I have posted many pieces about some of them here and elsewhere. But governments should be capable of doing more than one thing in the course of a parliament, and this seems to me something that would be worth doing even if it’s not a high priority. I am sure that it would remove far more public confusion about the system than it would cause.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    A key issue, not mentioned in this article, is the imperfect knowledge of those making the award; an inherent flaw in any awards system.

    To be considered for an award, the awarding body must be aware that the person exists and what they’ve achieved, this sounds blindingly obvious but many of the complaints about the system stem from this issue because it naturally means those who do not have a public presence are unlikely to ever be considered.

    By its very nature the honours system is as much an award for prominence in the public eye, or rather the eye of those on the awarding body, as for achievement.

    • brianbarder

      @Quiet_Sceptic, I agree that imperfect knowledge of all the deserving people out there is an unavoidable problem for those who draw up lists of candidates for awards. I believe that the honours committee does make a genuine effort to encourage people at all levels throughout society to look out for possible candidates toiling away in relative obscurity and doing good for their local communities, and to nominate those who seem to qualify. Certainly the committee (and people like MPs and Councillors) do receive thousands of suggestions for honours and I think they are all pretty carefully considered. My six-point reform plan is designed to concentrate the system on people like this, of whom politicians and officials in London will by definition never have heard until someone nominates them and describes the good things they have been doing, while terminating almost all awards to people who are already “prominent in the public eye” and whose already achieved prominence generally needs no further recognition or reward.

      I suggest that we should not fall into the trap of arguing that because many of those who receive honours neither deserve nor need them, and because many people who do deserve recognition for their selfless good works never get an official honour, therefore no-one at all should get any official recognition whatever.

  • Hamish Dewar

    ” top bankers, industrialists, civil servants and diplomats, sportsmen and sportswomen, conductors and actors ”
    For some reason Brian you seem to have omitted politicians from the list.
    Abolish the whole system I say.

    • brianbarder

      Hamish, you’re quite right about the omission of politicians, whose honours raise a number of quite important points. I simply didn’t have enough space to deal with them specifically. Of course my general proposals for reform of the system would apply to politicians as well as to everyone else, which would eliminate the use of political honours as a form of patronage, blackmailing and inducements, all essentially a corrupt abuse of the system.

      I don’t however agree that the whole system should be abolished. Almost every democratic country in the world finds a way of giving recognition to ordinary people who have done selfless and constructive things during their lives without ever receiving recognition (outside their own small circles), still less financial or other material reward. Many such splendid people are obviously hugely excited to receive even the humblest of honours, and their families and friends share the pleasure and gratification. The visit to the Palace to receive the gong may in many cases be the high spot in someone’s entire life. I think it would be a sad mistake to throw that baby out with the bathwater of snobbery, envy, embarrassment, chicanery and sheer corruption that quite different kinds of ‘honour’ bring with them. My six-point plan of reform is deliberately designed to preserve the first kind of well-deserved, life-enhancing honours while eliminating the second undesirable kind.

  • TomFairfax

    Brain. Generally agree. Can’t fathom for one moment why the British Empire (deceased) still gets a mention. A perfect way to alienate those who resent being made a member of an organisation built on slavery (initially) and then drug running (mid-19th Century and after Parliament grew a spine and turned on the slave traders and nabobs.)

    • brianbarder

      @TomFairfax: Yes, it’s wildly inappropriate in this day and age. Only people who are totally out of touch with current attitudes could allow an honours Order whose name commemorates the British Empire to continue for a single day without finding it a new name. I don’t dispute your pithy summary of the Empire’s genesis and development, although I also believe that future generations able to assess British imperial history from a longer perspective will recognise many positive and worthwhile elements in it alongside the failings and even crimes, some of which were not so regarded according to the moral codes of the time. We should beware of looking at complex historical phenomena through narrowly contemporary moral lenses. Many of the things that we do unquestioningly today will be denounced as grossly immoral by future generations with different moral yardsticks. That doesn’t mean that we are all villains without a moral compass.

      However, this raises issues that are not directly relevant to the question of reform of the honours system. We can almost all agree, I think, that the name of the Order of the British Empire is at best an anachronism and at worst offensive to many sensible people.

      • TomFairfax

        Thank you for your reply Brian.
        You are of course correct there were some good things to go with the bad (I’d generally say the positives outweighed the negatives, but then I’m white and middle class), but the point I was very clumsily making is that if your own antecedents were on the receiving end of the bad things then maybe it doesn’t appear to be an ‘honour’ under the current naming convention for the system.

        I recall a rather prominent poet using the opportunity to publicly turn down an honour because of this a couple of years ago.

  • Rick Role

    Hear hear! Mr Barder’s 1991 decision to accept a knighthood is wholly understandable, given the precedent for High Commissioners to Australia. And the bauble clearly left his integrity intact – including an honourable and vindicated resignation from the Special Immigration Appeals Commission in 2004.

    But, free of diplomatic obligation, now would be a great time to set a noble example by disowning the KCMG and drawing attention to this debate.

    Your move, Sir Brian. Knight to check?

    • brianbarder

      Thanks, Rick Role, but no thanks. It would be a completely futile and pointless gesture after all this time. It would be taken as some kind of protest, which it would not be. It’s one thing to want to change the system, but quite another to try to live one’s life as if the system had already been changed. We have to live in the world as it is, not in the kind of world we would like it to be. As for “setting a noble example”, I am absolutely sure that not a single other person would follow it. So it would achieve nothing except a fair amount of embarrassment, by seeming to cast aspersions on those of my former colleagues and current friends who are (justifiably) proud of their honours and wouldn’t dream of returning them. I would prefer a system like the one I suggest in my post, in which honours would not be awarded to serving diplomats and other public servants, but that was and is not the system that exists now or that existed when I was working, and I hope it won’t reflect vanity on my part to say that I wouldn’t want to disown the recognition I (and many others) received towards the end of our careers.

      So you may take my King and I admit defeat!

      • Rick Role

        Alas, by your defeat, you defeat me! And I fear that Dame Margaret Beckett shares your perspective. Thus does patronage corrupt even the noblest of souls.

        Noblesse, n’oblige.

        • brianbarder

          Rick, I’m sorry you see it that way. I see a sharp distinction between (a) accepting an award, and (b) returning an award after having accepted it. The implications of (b) are far more heavily loaded than those of (a), and in my case the implications of (b) would be almost entirely false. (I hear you reply: Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?)

          One of the good reasons for reforming the system along the lines suggested in my post is that it would not push people into these moral traps. Anyway, I don’t accept the imputation of corruption, although I suppose every acceptance of a gong, whatever the circumstances, involves an element of compromise, which however in my view falls well short of corruption.

          • Rick Role

            “Corrupt” as in “pushed into a moral trap”, to adopt your apposite phrase; I mean no offence. You have been admirably modest and coyly honest about your own experience!

            It suits the establishment that, for most recipients, even a career-related honour is so hard to renounce with dignity (for practical as well as personal reasons). Yet, because of the obvious political risks for Labour if it campaigns prematurely for reform, we need recipients and would-be recipients to lead the way right now.

            So I am sad that Margaret Beckett has accepted a DBE – the first former Labour leader to accept an honour since Attlee (other than life peerages which are at least arguably necessary for Labour representation in the Lords; and Jim Callaghan’s garter knighthood, which is at least supposedly in the personal gift of The Queen, unlike the DBE). Decent politician though Margaret is, her acceptance is a backwards step. Ken Livingstone shouldn’t be Labour’s only public voice to resist accolades that infiltrate Conservative values into even our most deserving public figures.

            And those of us not thought worthy of honours understandably gain no credit with the wider public for badmouthing a system that does not honour us! So we need you, and others like you, to lead the way.

  • MonkeyBot5000

    3. With very few defined exceptions, no more knighthoods or damehoods should be awarded.

    If they were given out for military gallantry, then ‘Knight if the Realm’ would have some real meaning to it again. You don’t get ennobled for winning the Victoria Cross, but Jeffrey Archer is a ‘sir’. *facepalm*

  • Scrap them altogether?

    • brianbarder

      No, I don’t advocate that. The majority of the honours awarded go to good citizens who receive no other reward or recognition. Please see my reply to Hamish Dewar in this thread — and also my original post.

  • Chilbaldi

    Sir Brian, will you lead the way and hand your honour back?

    • brianbarder

      Thanks for the suggestion, but I’m afraid that I won’t, for the reasons given in my reply to Rick Role in this thread.

  • Brumanuensis


    A very interesting article and one I mostly agree with. I’ve long thought the recommendations of the PASC in 2004 and 2012 would be a good basis for a new honours system. Some thoughts of my own:

    1). I favour completely abolishing knighthoods and dame(hoods); I think the award of such honours is a slightly distasteful anachronism.

    2). I’m aware you might be horrified by this, but I think the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George ought to go, as it really fulfills no distinct purpose that couldn’t be covered by other areas of the Honours System.

    3). Similarly, I think the Order of the Bath is surplus to requirements.

    4). I think the admission protocols relating to Companions of Honour ought to be altered, so that rather than having a cap of 65 members, a new limit stipulating that no more than 2 new members a year should be implemented. This would be part of process promoting it to senior status among those honours that are not the personal gift of the sovereign.

    5). Rather than having two dates when new honours are announced, there should be one, perhaps the sovereign’s official birthday, seeing as he or she is the fount of honour.

    I have a laundry list of other ideas – for one thing, I don’t understand why the second-tier decoration for bravery, the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross, is common to all branches of the Armed Forces, yet the third-tier decorations are distinct – but I’ll leave it there.

    • brianbarder

      @Brumanuensis: An interesting additional agenda! I don’t disagree with any of it. I suggested in my post that the number of Orders should be greatly reduced and that membership of those that survive should have no implied religious, ethnic or social bar. That ought to rule out any Order named after Christian saints, conducting services linked to any religion or sect, having a C of E Bishop in its governing body ex officio, being based in the chapel of a cathedral or Abbey, and so forth. They could also usefully dispense with much of the faux-mediaeval frippery, ceremonial and dressing up, much of it invented during the Victorian period and of no particular antiquity. The test might be whether a practising Muslim, a Buddhist, a practising Jew and a rampant atheist could be appointed a member of the Order without his or her being embarrassed and could take part in all the Order’s activities and gatherings without any sense of a bad conscience or lack of integrity.

      I would also propose that when the new reformed system is introduced, all members of existing Orders should be allowed to keep their gongs for the rest of their lives (unless they wanted to turn them in and exchange them for a new more democratic one) and that the Orders should continue to function normally as long as their members are alive. It would be unreasonable to expect the legions of people with (e.g.) MBEs for faithful service as nurses, junior civil servants, primary school teachers and the rest to be deprived of honours which in the majority of cases they had earned and richly deserved. It would be impossible to draw a meaningful line between the deserving and the undeserving.

      But, sadly, it’s all academic because it ain’t going to happen.

  • ColinAdkins

    Being an old punk I would take a leaf out of the book Situationist. Have great fun by awarding ourselves honours and titles whilst undermining the whole edifice. Baron Von Adkins of Balham


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