What Labour should do about honours

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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