Our dishonourable honours system devalues the honourable

An image of the OBE- a gold cross and crown attached to a red ribbon
Medals like the OBE (Order of the British Empire) are: too often awarded to people just doing their job… or funding the Tory party. Photo credit: BBC/PA

Peerages for party donors; knighthoods for people doing their job; medals for winning medals. The honours system reflects the vacuity and corruption of our country, perhaps most egregiously illustrated in the family to which we are all supposed to defer and which bestows them.

The offspring of the unelected monarch, bedecked like Christmas trees with regalia and medals, as if they were the heroes of some great endeavours but some of which are merely birthday gifts from their mother, are evidence of the decadence of this country’s class and honours systems. The apparent real worth of at least one member of the family has lately been exposed.

The association of honours awarded to these privileged few with those awarded to citizens whose hard work, selflessness and spirit make them truly worthy surely devalues the whole system. When so many of these “honours” bear the imprint of the cruel, racist and profiteering British Empire which so enriched the wealthier classes, it is a wonder any are accepted. Should any be awarded in a nation which aspires to have moved forward from such times?

It is important to remind ourselves that individuals make the world tick. Governments, political parties, multinationals and religions make the news but all of these are made up of individuals who play their part to varying degrees. Within an organisation, exceptional performance can be recognised via advancement or remuneration but perhaps there can be a case for exceptional extra-curricular recognition too; and it is not just those with leadership roles who excel. At least 22% of Victoria Cross recipients had no leadership function when exceeding their military duties.

By the same author

There are too, people who make a difference to the world without organisational responsibility, support or reward. Not all people are team players, whether by choice, circumstances or personality, yet some still stand out and achieve extraordinary things. Sports stars, actors or entrepreneurs may feel justly proud of their achievements. Do they merit rewards from the community? Others do kind, brave or generous actions out of altruism or a moral sense, but is not unselfishness its own reward; and is it ever motivated by the prospect of honours?

Greta Thunberg comes to mind: a schoolgirl whose personal example has captured the interest and following of millions for a cause of existential importance on which governments have dragged their feet. She has not and cannot do what is necessary to protect the climate but she has placed it more firmly where it belongs on the agenda than any politicians. Does she need awards to tell her that this work is worthwhile?

In our own Sussex backyard, Jolyon Maugham has been part of the last bastion of decency against the corruption in public life, exemplified by Prime Minister Johnson and his acolytes, leaving his previous professional practice to establish the Good Law Project to defend our constitution. I cannot know this, but rather suspect, that he would rather restore democracy and transparency in government than be awarded a tin badge. I doubt too that footballer Marcus Rashford was motivated by the prospects of his gong when he took up the cudgels for hungry children.

Deference is expected of citizens towards people who have not earned it

Community and social contributions may well command the good opinion of citizens and merit some sort of recognition but do those good people need to feel associated with those whose honours were awarded because they gave money to a political party or, worse, an individual? Do they want to be like those who achieved great wealth on the backs of low-paid workers and tax avoidance or who were honoured for failure? Just as it is so wrong that the Prime Minister can be judge and jury over his own behaviour, so it must be time to reform and honours system which is open to such abuses.

We have a country in which deference is expected of citizens towards people who have not earned it; and one in which wealth or birth commands greater respect than merit. This is not democracy but an unequal hierarchy. And a Royal Family, which has not earned respect, but patronises worthy citizens by pinning badges on them, seems a flawed expression of community gratitude.

Neither honours for establishment insiders nor “beads for the natives” are appropriate ways to recognise good citizenship or to build a more equal society. If recognition of outstanding contributions to society has popular support, let us find a better model than what we have. Let the case of Andrew Windsor be the evidence.

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