What Labour should do about honours

The publication of the 2013 New Year’s Honours List reminds us (or should do) of how unsatisfactory the whole honours industry has become, and of the need to decide what the next Labour government ought to do about it.

The latest list (PDF), issued by the Cabinet Office and covered nowadays only very selectively by most of the media, is 109 pages long, starting with Lord Coe (made a Companion of Honour for running the Olympic Games), and ending with 24 pages of recipients of the “Order of the British Empire: Medallists of the Order of the British Empire“,  including “Shirley, Mrs WILLIAMS, For services to Music, the community in West Wales and charitable services” — Mrs Shirley Williams BEM must have earned her award twice over for having to endure a lot of confusion over her identity.  (More later about these mysterious “Medallists of the Order of the British Empire“.)  The 109-page main honours list doesn’t include the Diplomatic Service and Overseas List of honours, another eight pages of awards, from a KCMG for the Director of GCHQ (“His leadership of GCHQ has been transformational, adapting the organisation to meet the challenges of the ‘cyber age’ and moving the organisation’s focus to be at the heart of the UK’s prosperity and national interest agenda”) to the award of the ‘Overseas Territories Police and Fire Service Medal For Meritorious Service‘ to one Ms Elizabeth Gomez, Constable, Royal Gibraltar Police — along with a CMG for HM Ambassador to Spain (Jeremy Paxman‘s baby brother, no less) and an MBE for a former Entry Clearance Manager, UK Border Agency, British Embassy, Kuwait, “for services to UK prosperity” (seriously!), among many others.

There’s still more: the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games list, the New Year Honours List 2013 – Higher Awards, a Departmental List, and a “Departmental List (Citations for D/KCMG recipients)”, the Military Division of the new year’s honours list, Police Honours – England and Wales, and The Queen’s Fire Service Medal, not to mention awards in the Queen’s personal gift, such as the GCVOs and lesser gongs for members of the royal household and others who have earned the special appreciation of the Palace.  According to the Cabinet Office website, 1,068 candidates have been selected at BEM, MBE and OBE level, 286 at BEM, 535 at MBE and 247 at OBE.  72% of the recipients are people who have undertaken outstanding work in their communities either in a voluntary or paid capacity.  There are 572 successful women candidates in the List, representing 47% of the total. Women candidates include 13 Dames, 40 CBEs and 2 CBs.  5% per cent of the successful candidates come from ethnic minority communities.  And this is just one New Year’s list:  there’ll be another, the Queen’s Birthday honours, in June (yes, Her Majesty’s birthday is in April, but never mind).  So multiply everything by two for the annual rate.

Those 286 British Empire Medallists (BEM) are of special interest.  Unlike the 535 MBEs, they are not members of the Order of the British Empire, but they are nonetheless “affiliated with the Order“, whatever that’s supposed to mean. According to Wikipedia, the British Empire Medal had not been used in the United Kingdom or its dependencies since 1993, but was revived in 2012 with 293 BEMs awarded for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Presumably someone thought that was a good idea at the time.  “In addition, BEM is used by the Cook Islands and by some other Commonwealth nations”!

It should be obvious that the whole thing has got completely out of hand.  Most of those given the highest awards are honoured for becoming very senior in the organisations or sectors for which they work — in other words, for doing their jobs and being successful at them.  These people — top bankers, industrialists, civil servants and diplomats, sportsmen and sportswomen, dancers, conductors and actors — are already being rewarded by promotions, generous and rising salaries and prize money or bonuses, high status in their own professions and in some cases the achievement of national or international fame.  An appearance in the honours list is just icing on an already fairly rich cake.  What does Andy Murray’s derisory OBE add to his Olympic gold medal and his Grand Slam victory?

The problem about abolishing honours for achieving prominence by doing the job for which they are being paid boils down to the demands of precedent.  If the Chairman and Chief Executive of The British Pins and Needles Company Ltd has been knighted, and all his predecessors going back a hundred years have similarly been knighted, there’s a natural expectation that his successor, Mr J Doe, will automatically feel the tap of the Queen’s sword on his shoulder, arising from his knees as Sir John, soon after assuming his high office.  If he remains plain Mr Doe after a couple of New Year and Birthday honours have passed, questions will be asked and suspicions voiced, around the water coolers at BPNC and in the Athenaeum lounges:  is there a skeleton in old John’s cupboard? How has he blotted his copybook? — and other such clichés.  Yet poor Mr Doe is quite likely blameless, his copybook entirely unblotted; he’s just one of many victims of a largely arbitrary and capricious system.

Similarly, if Her Majesty’s British ambassadors to Tsetseland have invariably been made knights of the realm, either before or soon after their arrival in that country, but a newly appointed ambassador arrives as a Mister and stays that way for a couple of years, the government and people of Tsetseland will begin to feel that they have been short-changed: either they and their country are no longer regarded in London as sufficiently important to HMG to warrant representation by a Sir, or the new ambassador is a person of unprecedented insignificance, which comes to the same thing.  Tsetselanders will write to complain of their downgrading to government ministers in London, perhaps also to the Queen;  visiting British ministers and minor royals will be button-holed sotto voce at receptions and dinners about what the Tsetse people have done to deserve this (literal) dis-honour?  Some will even discreetly express their sympathy to HM ambassador himself over his supposed humiliation. Sooner or later someone in London will ask why such questions and complaints should be endured when there’s an easy solution ready to hand that costs hardly a penny of taxpayer’s money: give the fellow a K, for God’s sake, whether he wants it or not!*

Thus the system has several defects. It is arbitrary and capricious; attempts to make it more consistent by following precedents simply make the lists progressively longer, more inconsistent and more unmanageable (the most conspicuous examples of this being awards to sportsmen and sportswomen, where proliferation has resulted in some hurtful anomalies). It is offensively class-based: the various ranks within each Order correspond closely to social status, sharpening divisions in an already class-conscious and hierarchical society. It causes endless embarrassment: few people understand its arcane ramifications, and even fewer know the rules about addressing someone with ‘Sir’ mysteriously attached to his name, either in writing or face-to-face; ‘Dames’, with their pantomime undertones, present even more obviously insurmountable problems. The system combines two wholly different categories of honorands: people who have got near to the top of the greasy pole in their jobs and main activities, and others who have genuinely rendered devoted service to their communities without ever receiving much, if anything, in the way of official recognition, still less reward.

None of these defects is beyond remedy, although their solutions may seem too radical for the obsessively centrist parties which currently govern us. Only Labour is likely to take seriously proposals for sorting it out, without simultaneously destroying elements in the system which are worthwhile and deservedly popular. Here is the outline of a possible six-point programme of reform:

1.  No one should be given an honour for being successful in the job for which they are paid or in the activity in which they primarily engage, and in which there are plenty of other forms of recognition in terms of promotions, high salaries, bonuses or prize money, status and fame.

2.  Honours should be given to recognise exceptional service to the recipient’s community, local, regional, national or international, going beyond the requirements of the person’s job and normally irrelevant to it, in circumstances where there is no other obvious form of reward or recognition available.

3.  With very few defined exceptions, no more knighthoods or damehoods should be awarded. The handle ‘Sir’ or ‘Dame’ in front of the recipient’s name is divisive and embarrassing.  Knighthoods should in future be given only to men and women of real and exceptional distinction who are no longer active in their former fields and whose achievements have significantly benefited the country. No knighthoods should be awarded to any person whose decisions, policies and judgements in their working lives could possibly be perceived as capable of having been influenced by hope of a knighthood or damehood after retirement.

4. Each Order should have only one rank, indicating ‘membership’: no more distinctions between holders of the MBE, OBE, CBE, KBE and GBE; no more Commanders, Knights Commander, Knights Grand Cross and the rest.  The statutes of the Orders should be revised so as to eliminate implied conditions for membership such as adherence to a specific church or religion or set of political or social beliefs.  A study should be made of the possibility of reducing the number of Orders to a maximum of three, perhaps fewer.

5.  In any case, the Order of the British Empire is long overdue for renaming or burial, for obvious reasons. The mysterious revival of the British Empire Medal is surplus to requirements and it should be put back in the cupboard.

6.  Consideration should be given to the possibility of preserving the existing systems of specialised honours, such as those in the personal gift of the monarch and those awarded to the military, police and fire services, subject to there being no more knighthoods or damehoods in any of these.

Of course holes can be picked in these suggestions, which are offered purely for discussion and refinement.  But I would hope that their basic thrust might be acceptable to a party of the centre-left.

Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the end of the original article at https://barder.com/3888, not by private email.  For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post with the full text of it (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal.  Thanks.

*Full disclosure: some readers of this may well feel entitled to think, or say, that I’m a fine one to make such suggestions, arguably an example of someone already aboard calling for the ladder to be pulled up behind him.  To such critics I can only plead that it is partly because of my own experience in the field that I want to see it reformed.




12 Responses

  1. treborc says:

    sadly Blair blew it for me and these days these awards are nothing more then back up for giving services to political leaders. Blair ruined it as far as I was concerned at least Thatcher used a bit of discrete medal giving although you could see right through it.
    I never lose any sleep over these  gongs anymore and I will be honest could not care a dam, I would not be calling Prescott sir any time soon 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I don’t think you should dismiss all awards of honours just because some are given in return for political favours or for other reasons that you disapprove of. The majority of them go to ordinary people who would otherwise never receive any recognition of the good things they do, quietly and without publicity. My 6-point plan for reform would end the kind of abuses that you associate with the whole system while leaving the worthwhile awards to continue.

    And you’re quite right not to call John Prescott Sir (he’s a Lord).  

  2. Oliver Miles says:

    Not being of the centre-left I have a more practical suggestion to make the system work for the general good. People like you should pay a bit more income tax, and people like me a bit less.

    To be mildly serious, in those cases in which I have been involved (including making a successful recommendation as a member of the public) I have observed innocent happiness given to good people and their families and friends, so I would be sad to see the system go, with all its anomalies and absurdities.

    Brian writes: Thanks, Oliver. I refrain from comment on your unusual tax reform proposals, although under this government nothing would surprise me. There might of course be a case for making the cost of insuring the medals and ribbons that come with a gong tax-deductible, don’t you think?

    I entirely agree with your remarks about the large numbers of well-deserved honours for good people who have been doing good without any other recognition or reward. In response to a comment on a shortened version of this post at http://labourlist.org/2013/01/what-labour-should-do-about-honours/ in which the comment advocated abolishing the whole system, root and branch, I wrote:

    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.

  3. I agree with much of this, Brian, but I, too, have a sneaking fondness for the Gilbertian ‘anomalies and absurdities’.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Barrie. I don’t generally mind ‘anomalies and absurdities’, Gilbertian or otherwise, so long as (like doctors) they do no harm. But some of the anomalies of the present system are genuinely harmful. When one athlete gets a knighthood for a couple of gold medals while another — such as the splendid Mo Farah — is fobbed off with a CBE (and Andy Murray, with one gold and a Grand Slam, gets a mere OBE, for heaven’s sake) the unmistakeable unfairness can cause real distress and humiliation, especially when the media pick it up and carry on about it. And when greedy bankers, already rewarded by gigantic salaries, share options and bonuses, while bringing the world economy to its knees by their reckless anti-social behaviour, get honours from the state regardless, the sense of the gross unfairness of the whole capitalist system under which we live is hugely aggravated for ordinary reasonably honest folk struggling to get by on wages that barely enable them to eat. That’s the sort of anomaly that in my view isn’t quaint: it’s obscene.

  4. Tim Weakley says:

    I largely agree with everything you said.  The one merit of the present system is that it gives some reward to those at the lower end who’ve worked quietly and beyond the call of duty for the good of the community: the village postmaster, the district nurse, the woman running what is widely recognised as the best care home in the district.  Higher up, the system merely reinforces publicised financial and social success.  It also rewards yesmanship and not rocking the boat – those senior academics, for example, who fail to take a stand against the increased Whitehall-driven bureaucratisation of the universities because they are hoping for a K (or D), or if already possessed of one, for what comes next.

    Brian writes: Tim, thanks for this. I agree entirely with everything you say. Please see my response to Oliver Miles, above, at https://barder.com/3888/comment-page-1#comment-170610.

  5. dennis price says:

    Stop giving out honours completely. 1. The game of cramming the house of lords with labour party pals and cronies is infantile and NOT DEMOCRATIC.
    2. Honours are only for heroes or people who do honourable things.Not for MPs as they are not honourable.
    Here endeth the first lesson. 

    Brian writes: Thank you. I don’t agree that the honours system should be abandoned, as you suggest. Please see my response to Oliver Miles at https://barder.com/3888/comment-page-1#comment-170610. The system should be changed, not abandoned.

    Appointments to the House of Lords are nothing to do with honours. (But incidentally David Cameron has “crammed the house of lords” with far more Tories than Labour ever did with its own supporters.)

    The suggestion that no MPs are ‘honourable’ is a libel on the majority of MPs who are in politics to try to make the world a better place. I agree that honours should not be awarded to MPs or other politicians, not because they are not honourable but for the reasons that I have set out in some detail in my post — on which I would be interested to have your views.

    Here endeth the second lesson.

  6. Rich says:

    John Major rightly replaced the plebeian BEM by extending the MBE to the working classes. So it is depressing that Cameron’s downward reversal of that modest but laudable improvement attracted so little criticism when it was announced. Knighthoods for sacked ministers, knockdown medals for postmen.

    But perhaps some good will come from the recent controversy over the lack of honours for Paralympians and Olympians, and the conspicuous refusals by Ken Livingstone (explicitly) and Danny Boyle (clearly implied).

    It used to be thought bad form to reveal that you had declined an honour. But rather than waiting forever the honours system to fall into disuse by people discreetly declining to accept when they are nominated, high-profile people should reveal their choice when they turned down honours.

    Dishonourable, perhaps, publicly spurning nomination by Her Majesty’s Prime Minister – but a great way to undermine the system. Refuseniks of the Empire, reveal yourselves! This pantomime has gone on too long.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. It’s a tempting idea, but I doubt if there will ever be enough selfless refuseniks to batter down the walls of the system. The best hope is surely legislative action by a progressive government and parliament.

  7. Point 6 raises an interesting constitutional question. Can the government advise the monarch to change the way in which awards are made in the Royal Victorian Order, when such awards are in the monarch’s personal gift? If they cannot, then the monarch would, as now, be able to grant knighthoods and damehoods to ambassadors on the occasion of a royal visit to the state to which an ambassador was accredited, and, indeed, on any other occasion the monarch chose. I suppose we must assume that any monarch who valued public opinion, and the support of the government of the day, would see which way the wind was blowing, and act accordingly.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I deliberately chose not to go into these shark-infested waters in my post, to avoid making it even longer than it is already. I agree with your conclusion, namely that there would have to be a private agreement between a reforming government and the monarch that the latter’s prerogative powers (e.g. to confer knighthoods in the Royal Victorian Order without the obligation to act on ministers’ advice) would be exercised in a way that conformed with the policies of the elected government. My guess is that this would probably be relatively easy to achieve with the present monarch. If the present heir apparent were to be on the throne at the relevant time, I wouldn’t be too sure. A clear electoral mandate based on the party manifesto and an overall majority in the house of commons should help! Sadly, I can’t see the present leadership of the Labour Party plucking up the courage to grasp even this titchy little nettle any time soon. Terror of the tabloids seems to be surviving Leveson.

  8. Phil says:

    “give the fellow a K, for God’s sake, whether he wants it or not!*
    A bizarre and implausible scenario – how unlike the home life of our own dear diplomatic service!
    Other than this lapse into fantasy, I agree wholeheartedly with this post – particularly the proposal for a new & limited role for knighthoods & damehoods, which corresponds much more closely to an intuitive sense of the personal worth associated with the title.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Phil. I am replying separately about the implausible scenario that you find incredible. In this area, you can be pretty sure that if you think up the most improbable event imaginable, it has probably happened.

  9. Mike B Sculthorp says:

    I could see the point of awarding deserving people with something like a “certificate for exceptional service” or “badge denoting national gratitude” but all the current accretions are downright weird.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this. I entirely agree. Something like the French Légion d’Honneur or the US Congressional Medal of Honor would be perfectly unexceptionable.

  10. Tim Weakley says:

    Brian, isn’t the Congressional Medal of Honor the American equivalent of the VC, awarded for exceptional courage in the face of the enemy?  What you were thinking of has a different name – Legion of Merit, something like that.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. On reflection, I suspect that you’re right. Can anyone supply the name of the US award I was thinking of?
    Later: It’s the Medal of Freedom — see list of recipients here. Hat-tip: my wife.

  11. ObiterJ says:

    Abolish the honours system in its entirety would be my preference.  No replacement – just gone.
    You must also look at automatics – certain ranks in the Forces, the judiciary, diplomatic service, Police (e.g. Hogan-Howe recently).  No automatics.
    Peerages have also got to be abolished – not to do this would be inconsistent with abolishing other honours since peerages are often awarded for much the same reasons.
    “Most of those given the highest awards are honoured for becoming very senior in the organisations or sectors for which they work — in other words, for doing their jobs and being successful at them” – depends how success is judged of course – may appear to me to have been downright unsuccessful !
    “Only Labour is likely to take seriously proposals for sorting it out, without simultaneously destroying elements in the system which are worthwhile and deservedly popular. Here is the outline of a possible six-point programme of reform” – Personally, I doubt that Labour will do a damn thing to improve this.  Did nothing when in office from 1997 to 2010.
    Brian writes: Thank you for this. Rather unusually, I disagree with some of your points here and don’t see the relevance of others. To abolish all state awards recognising exceptional merit on the part of people whose service to society otherwise goes unacknowledged and largely or wholly unrewarded would be a sad case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater — please see my response to Oliver Miles at https://barder.com/3888/comment-page-1#comment-170610 Peerages are a completely different issue, unconnected with the twice-yearly honours list. This is an aspect of the reform of the second chamber of our legislature. (What happens to peers who are no longer members of the house of lords is surely a matter of total indifference.) On “automatic” honours, I don’t need to add anything to my original post, which deals quite fully with automaticity (no more honours for doing what you’re paid to do). When I write of honours that merely recognise “success” in the honorand’s profession or principal activity, I think the context makes clear what is meant by “success”; the fact that you or others might not regard achievement of a position at or near the top of a person’s profession as “success” is just a sort of play on words. As for the likelihood of a future Labour government acting in the way I propose, my post is a recommendation, not a prediction. The fact that Labour is unlikely to do what needs to be done is no reason for failing to spell out the case for specific reforms, or for failing to point out that Labour is the only party whose core values might one day prompt it to envisage reforms on the lines of my recommendations.  

  12. Ken Blyth says:

    One of the (many) oddities about Knighthoods of course is that a wife gets an honorific title, but a husband of a Dame doesn’t.  Might the current desire for equality between same-sex partnerships and heterosexual marriages – to the extent of being called the same (in the belief that equality entails identical nomenclature?) – produce problems leading gradually to the decay of Knighting (at any rate to the extent of the award being recognised by the addition of initials after one’s name, rather than by adding a title in front and giving a title to one’s spouse)? 
    Separate point.  Might the idea of honours being awarded only for exceptional services outside one’s job description (if I interpret your suggestion correctly) cause more distress than pleasure?  Don’t many awards give pleasure in the same way that a (possibly gold) watch after long service may do? Don’t ignore the need for recognition of conscientious plodders.  And if the criteria for awards were tightened up, that would remove the comforting reassurance that many have at present that the system is full of odd anomalies, and that in many awards (not just the Garter) there is no damn’d merit.   Similarly the retention of all the awards with BE in their title prevents the system being taken too seriously.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Ken. I agree that the unfairness of knights’ spouses acquiring an automatic title while Dames’ spouses don’t is one of many reasons for dispensing altogether with honours that involve a pre-nominal title, except perhaps for really outstanding public figures who have done the State exceptional service.

    I have a lot of sympathy with your case for honouring “conscientious plodders” for doing their jobs conscientiously and without other public recognition. The trouble is however that there are millions of people who fit that description perfectly, and if all of them receive an honour it will so devalue them as to make them worthless, while if we single out some for an honour while ignoring others, the awards are going to appear — and are bound to be — random and capricious, and unfair to those who are left out. It will also appear at best paradoxical, and at worst seriously unjust, to reward the conscientious plodders with state honours while ceasing to recognise the hard-working high-fliers; and if we continue to do that, we’re back to square one. No more knighthoods and no more honours awarded to people for doing their principal paid jobs seem to me good and simple principles that should underlie any reform.