Society

The UK honours system must evolve

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By James Clark Ross

Recently I investigated peerage in the UK, a legal system of hereditary and lifetime titles for aristocrats, who dominate land ‘ownership’ and wield undemocratic powers in the House of Lords and beyond. I opined that this political system is in need of reform, for the system itself protects economic, social, and political inequality and exacerbates disillusionment with the political establishment.

Similarly, the UK honours system is an archaic arrangement which is led by an unelected head of state, the Queen, and commands respect through the personal titles it awards (most notably, ‘Sir’ and ‘Dame’).

The honours system should be the bastion of merit and integrity to incentivise virtue, decency, and dedication in all kinds of people across all of our communities. But, when examined further, it can be exposed as yet another political sham that’s in dire need of an overhaul.

How it works

In the lead-up to New Year or on the Queen’s official birthday—officially her fake birthday—individuals are rewarded for personal bravery, achievement, or service to the United Kingdom and remnants of the Empire. The awards? Orders, decorations, and medals, as decreed by our monarch, currently Elizabeth II. Up until the year 2000 the Queen also handed out life peerages.

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Elizabeth II, our unelected head of state.

The tradition began a long time ago, during the Norman conquest, but ordinary Britons were only recognised from 1917 onwards.

In principle, rewarding praiseworthy people for their efforts is commendable. However, in practice the system has hitherto lacked transparency and probity.

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Coveted honours.

Bereft of integrity

The UK honours system quite often resembles a fraternity for the already-famous to self-perpetuate their flattering reputations, whilst the awards themselves are symbolically steeped with the blood spilled by the British Empire.

With a knighthood up for grabs, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell summarised the issues with this system, including nepotism and cronyism, quite compendiously:

‘I could never accept an honour because the titles reek of aristocracy and empire, and the system is corrupted when financiers and friends of the Establishment scoop the top awards. In each case, the caller declined to identify himself or say on whose behalf he was calling. I have no idea if the sounding out was genuine or a tabloid sting.

‘Honours should be restricted to outstanding achievers and those who have made personal sacrifices for the benefit of the public. Party donors, political loyalists and government time-servers should be banned. No one should get an honour for long service in a well-paid job.’

Such views were echoed by poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who rejected an Order of the British Empire (OBE) on the basis of this system being a remnant of a disgraced Empire which stood for colonial brutality and slavery, whilst many more have provided further valid and compelling reasons for turning down these awards.

Politicians and their mates

From the top the will to build a scrupulous awards system has been corrupted.

UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, promised to clamp down on the issues highlighted by Tatchell. Yet it has emerged from a leaked list that David Cameron requested knighthoods for party donors, pro-EU campaigners, and pollical aides—and proposed further rewards for more.

Cameron claimed to want to clean up politics; but the pretence of his pantomime leadership is evidenced by the outright fact that he handed out peerages to at least 13 major Tory party donors during his tenure in addition to a number of knighthoods and lesser honours for colleagues such as ‘Sir’ Eric Pickles.

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Chaz and Dave.

Meanwhile, more recently Nigel Farage contrived a humiliating attempt to be awarded a knighthood, which was blocked by disgraced party infighting.

Of course, there are more. But the details of these cases are massive indictments of a flawed system.

An ego-stroke for public figures

Clearly, honours are appealing to many people—and it’s not just politicians who covet them. Public figures exploit a flawed system to promote themselves and, consequently, fulfil their egos.

Take David Beckham. As hacked emails reveal, Beckham is bitterly embattled in the pursuit of a knighthood for services to charity. He even labelled the honours system committee ‘unappreciative c***s’.  Is his fury just?

He should be applauded for his charitable efforts; but, as the world fawns over his credentials as the perfect husband, the more eagle-eyed among us will recall that he is someone who has always prioritised fame and fortune.

He sacrificed his football legacy during the latter half of his career—an opinion attested by the views of his former manager and knight, ‘Sir’ Alex Ferguson. With his handsome looks and scores of haircuts and by shaking off his working-class, Cockney accent—unlike someone like Wayne Rooney, who was also given more grief for a reported affair—he’s been able to garner a favourable worldwide audience. It may not actually be that cynical, then, to suggest that he sees ‘Sir’ as an accolade that will add that nice bit of extra value to the Beckham brand as well as a nice little ego stroke.

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Why is becoming a ceremonial knight so important to David Beckham? I have doubts over whether his intention to set up a new football club is for footballing reasons.

Beckham, though, is one of many public figures (Gary Barlow OBE, soon-to-be-‘Sir’ Lewis Hamilton, et al) who grovel to the Queen to please the committee: subservient, patriotic, and, figuratively,  on their knees with apparent utmost respect for the British monarchy—behaviour which altruistically endorses the system whilst rewarding them personally.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter if the individual’s pursuit of awards is selfishly-driven or not. Great deeds, such as volunteering for charity, can be simultaneously disingenuous and helpful. However, what message does it send to the people?

Consider each of the following examples of services to this country: Hamilton and Barlow use aggressive tax avoidance schemes to selfishly circumvent reimbursing the country that nurtured them into fame. ‘Sir’ James Dyson, who was appointed as a knight for his services to business, outsources work to other countries whilst closing down factories and calling for the abolishment of many workers’ rights in the UK. Meanwhile, ‘Sir’ Richard Branson is a tax exile. Hence when honours are dubiously awarded to public figures the message signalled to the people it intends to encourage is too often ‘Hyocrisy’.

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Gary Barlow (left) and Lewis Hamilton (right): Public figures who dodge millions of pounds worth of tax whilst asking us to donate money to disadvantaged children are hypocrites. Their immoral behaviour discredits the intentions of the awards system.

When the appeal of these awards arouses the ego to the point the desire to do good becomes totally, outwardly self-serving the system becomes impossible to believe in. This is a shame because it would be a lot more effective at promoting and incentivising good deeds if we were able to place faith in it.

Our behaviour can also be conditioned to resemble awe and admiration, which is favourable to an overruling monarchy and public figures but potentially dangerous for us. Powerful individuals are often already shrouded in protective coatings for much of their careers; with the assistance of state-sanctioned commendation, they can further evade scrutiny.

Respect is evoked: as society’s onlooking subjects our attention is diverted and our judgement is tainted, paradoxically obfuscating their daily activities.

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‘Sir’ Jimmy Saville.

Reform

People from our communities who have contributed the most to our society should undoubtedly be commended at a national level. The reality is that an unelected head of state bestows lofty-sounding awards and titles of nobility on the advice of politicians who, as an abundance of evidence suggests, often possess selfish, ulterior motives. At its absolute best there’s significant room for improvement.

Merit is assumed to exist within the UK honours system’s framework; however, it has continually demonstrated that it will recurrently favour those who already stand in the limelight and who forcibly push for recognition. The whole thing is tainted by Establishment-serving cronyism and nepotism whilst operating under the guise of merit, limiting the system’s efficacy.

By remaining in its current form it brings the political establishment into disrepute. During a political era such as ours rife disillusionment with the elite is ingrained in so many. It’s, therefore, essential that we don’t disenchant the people any further; ergo, the system must be reformed.

We can still acknowledge those who go above and beyond with recognition of comparable magnitude, awarded by a head of state. But, as well as rendering it more transparent, we have to purge the system of the self-serving behaviours it currently facilitates. This can be achieved by reforming the honours committee to make it more independent and by welcoming greater scrutiny. Additionally, we should tame the ego-stroking by jettisoning the noble titles and actively seek to celebrate the people who deserve it most.

The UK honours system, as a focal point between the political establishment and our communities, must evolve to maintain its integrity. Only then will we be able to elicit the absolute best in all kinds of people.

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