Let’s Not Abolish Honours. Let’s Truly Democratise Them.
The resignation honours list of David Cameron (remember him?), in which he nominated a host of Remain campaigners and political hacks, took me back many years.
In a country of some 60 million people the law of averages states that some of them are going to do extraordinary things. I know one of them (she would not like it if I called her a friend). Ten years ago she set up a charity to improve literacy in state-maintained schools. Today the charity operates across the whole country. In all that time, she has done this without expecting a penny in payment. Hers is an incredible achievement.
In idle moments I have often thought about nominating my friend (sorry, Lorna) for some form of honour. What has stopped me is that I know, as an egalitarian, she would turn it down.
I believe she would be right. However, that does not mean that we should not recognise the exceptional. I suspect the instant response of many, provoked by the former premier's obvious cronyism, to call for abolition of the honours system, would - on reflection - be replaced by an admission that actually they want to find a better system.
Over the years the system has been ‘modernised’: there was the Honours (Prevention of Abuse) Act 1925; John Major set up a system to enable public nominations in 1993; New Labour tried to make the system more transparent. However, for many the honours system represents an outdated system of patronage, a sign of social snobbery and remains an evocation of Empire. It plays to all the preconceived ideas of what the UK is. It is also a false notion. Why, over fifty years since Harold Macmillan’s Winds of Change speech is our head of state giving out honours that reflect a lost imperialism? I am not saying that empire was A Bad Thing. I am not saying it was A Good Thing either. I am merely saying that it is no longer a thing.
As long as we continue to grade honours we degrade the exceptionaL
In 2015, The Times newspaper found that 46% of those who receive honours went to public schools; 27% went to Oxford and Cambridge. The social determinism goes further with civil servants and politicians getting knighthoods, while “ordinary people” OBEs and CBEs. In 1997, 55% of honours were automatic. Two decades later, they are still ‘doled out’. In 2009 only 44% believed our honours system was ‘open to all’; 34% thought it ‘out of date’. Piecemeal attempts to reform the system have failed. Maybe it is time not for pragmatism but to democratise.
Other countries have honours systems. Yet they recognise individual contributions and do not confer social position. OK, my whimsical side will miss Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen but Britain is nearly unique in linking the two. Even New Zealand abolished honours with titles in 2001. It may seem overly austere but a modern honours system could bestow recognition not status.
Britain’s honours system is not only class-ridden but confusing. The miasma of ancient orders, whether it is the Order of the Garter or the Thistle, is incredible and cries out for simplification. As long as we continue to grade honours we degrade the exceptional.
A democratic honours system could reflect our values not defunct institutions. When De Gaulle reformed the French honours system in 1960s, he simplified the numbers of orders to his reflect his ‘idée de la France’. Canada has one order for “lifetime achievement”, with different levels to reflect achievement and service. America operates an honours systems which works on one level and recognises the best in particular fields.
a truly reformed system would go beyond simplification and modernisation
We live in a country where a substantial number would like to see a democratic head of state. Why should these people forgo recognition because of democratic principles? We have a claim to be a democratic country, that believes in equality before the law, freedom of expression and freedom from tyranny. The way we recognise extraordinary contribution should reflect that. Moreover, it is absurd that to be honoured anyone, whether monarchist or republican, has to bow and scrape in front of an unelected, hereditary head of state. If anything, she should bow to them.
The UK honours system could reform to have one order. The devolved parliaments and assemblies could award their own honours, to reflect our constitutional settlement. Should there be popular demand for it, there could be different levels to reflect differences of time served, achievement and service. A long-serving nurse or teacher would get the same honour as a long-serving politician or diplomat. There would be no distinction between public service as a diplomat or for a charity.
However, a truly reformed system would go beyond simplification and modernisation. Radical reform would allow people, not a Whitehall committee, to debate openly who is nominated and why the are nominated. Instead of an arbitrary figure, the number of honours given could depend on how many people were successfully nominated. The Government’s petition site could be a model for the honours process. There would need to be safeguards. After all, Parliament recently wasted time discussing Donald Trump. However, if an individual received over a certain amount of votes, their nomination could be considered - annually, publically and democratically. Reform is never easy. There would be losers from the old system. But we would finally end the constant and demeaning debate about cronyism, and be afforded an opportunity to celebrate who are are and what we hold important.
What do you think, Lorna?
About the author
Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).
A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.
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